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U.S. Supreme Court

‘Raging Bull’ copyright suit isn’t barred by doctrine of laches, SCOTUS rules

Posted May 19, 2014 10:47 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The daughter of Jake LaMotta’s biographer is getting an opportunity to sue the movie studios profiting from DVD and Blu-ray sales of Raging Bull, the movie about the boxer’s life.

The 6-3 decision (PDF) issued on Monday holds that Paula Petrella, daughter of biographer Frank “Peter” Petrella, did not wait too long to file suit for alleged violation of a screenplay copyright. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion. Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote a dissent that was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Petrella’s suit, which was brought within the three-year statute of limitations, had been dismissed by a federal appeals court based on the doctrine of laches, which bars legal claims that are unreasonably delayed. Ginsburg said the doctrine can’t be used to prevent a damages claim brought within the three-year window. “Courts are not at liberty to jettison Congress’ judgment on the timeliness of suit,” she wrote.

The defendants, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. and its subsidiary United Artists Corporation, had acquired copyrights for two screenplays and a book in 1978, written by Petrella in collaboration with LaMotta, and released the film in 1980. After Frank Petrella’s death in 1981, his renewal rights reverted to his heirs, "who could renew the copyrights unburdened by any assignment previously made by the author," Ginsburg said, citing a 1990 Supreme Court opinion.

The defendants continued to market the film, Ginsburg said, "and has converted it into formats unimagined in 1980, including DVD and Blu-ray."

Though Petrella had renewed her copyright to one of two screenplays by her father in 1991, she didn’t sue until 2009. Petrella claimed a copyright violation for distribution of Raging Bull stretching back for the prior three years; she acknowledged she could not recover for any copyright violations before that time.

Though Petrella may sue, Ginsburg said, "the circumstances here may or may not (we need not decide) warrant limiting relief at the remedial stage." If Petrella prevails, the trial court may take into account the delayed suit when determining appropriate injunctive relief and assessing profits, Ginsburg said.

Breyer’s dissent noted that the three-year limitations period for copyright violations is a “rolling limitations period” that restarts with each separate violation. Delays in bringing suit can produce inequities when witnesses die, paperwork is lost and substantial sums are spent by the defendants, he said.

In the 18 years between Petrella’s renewed copyright and her lawsuit, three key witnesses have died or become unavailable, Breyer said. In the meantime, the studio spent millions of dollars marketing and developing different editions of the film, he said.

The case is Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

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