The US Supreme Court has heard oral arguments in a copyright case involving movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. (MGM) and the daughter of Frank Petrella. Mr. Petrella was the author of a 1963 movie script called “The Raging Bull.”
At issue is the doctrine of “laches” – an “unreasonable delay pursuing a right or claim…in a way that prejudices the [opposing] party.” The doctrine bars a plaintiff from suing if he or she “sleeps” on his or her rights.
Paula Petrella has asked the Supreme Court to overturn a ruling by the Ninth Circuit that she was barred by laches from suing MGM for infringing the copyright in her father’s script, upon which the 1980 United Artists movie Raging Bull was allegedly based.
Frank Petrella had also collaborated with Jake LaMotta, the boxer who is the subject of the film and who wrote the 1970 memoir Raging Bull: My Story.
Frank Petrella died in 1981, a year after the movie was released. Under a 1990 Supreme Court case involving the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window, when an author dies before the copyright renewal term ends, the author’s heirs can claim the author’s copyright renewal rights. Ms. Petrella did this for her father’s work.
Ms. Petrella became aware of a potential copyright claim for her father’s work in 1991, but did not sue until 2009.
The US Copyright Act has a three-year statute of limitations, which means that Ms. Petrella would have a theoretical claim to damages going back to only 2006. However, a lower court didn’t allow her to even make that claim, due to her delay in bringing suit.
MGM and other studios are concerned that without the doctrine of laches plaintiffs could file copyright claims any time a movie or TV show is released in a new format.
MGM made a major investment in promoting Raging Bull for the movie’s 25th anniversary re-release in 2005. The studio claims that the movie does not have a “substantial similarity” to Frank Petrella’s screenplay and thus does not infringe his copyright.
MGM’s attorney told the Supreme Court that the film “still has never made a profit” for the period at issue.
If you believe you may have a claim for copyright infringement, it’s important to bring a claim promptly in order to avoid losing your rights or minimizing your damages.