The Supreme Court revived a copyright lawsuit against MGM over recent profits from the 1980 film "Raging Bull," ruling that the heirs of writers and composers may wait decades before seeking royalties from the re-release of a famous work.
The court's 6-3 decision Monday allows Paula Petrella, whose father, Frank, wrote a 1963 screenplay depicting the life of boxing champion Jake LaMotta, to pursue her case in court.
She renewed the copyright on this work in 1991, but waited until 2009 to sue the movie studio for a share of the profits from the movie.
The ruling is a setback for studios and could prove significant in an era when old hits are repeatedly revived.
"Hollywood has an insatiable appetite for recycling old film content into sequels, remakes, spin-offs, video games and even Broadway musicals like 'Rocky,' 'Spider Man,' 'Mary Poppins' and 'Hairspray,'" said William Kane, a Chicago lawyer who handled a recent claim involving the James Bond movies.
"Increasingly, copyright ownership for much of this older content has now passed down to the families and heirs of the original creators," he said.
Dylan Ruga, a Century City lawyer, called the decision "a boon" for plaintiffs.
"We can expect a flood of new lawsuits based on purported infringement of films, television programs, music and other copyrighted materials that were created decades ago but are still exploited today," he said.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, taking a pro-Hollywood stance, had barred such old claims from going forward. The federal judges said it was unfair for the studios to be hit with legal claims after they had devoted many years and many millions of dollars to market an old film.
But the Supreme Court disagreed in Petrella vs. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., saying that the Copyright Act adopted by Congress set no time limit on filing copyright claims.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing the majority decision, said the law sets a three-year window for seeking damages. That means Petrella may seek a share of profits from the film going back only to 2006, and she also may seek royalties going forward.
But the law does not impose a cut-off date for claims from copyright holders, Ginsburg said.
The justices divided over whether it was unfair to open the door to old claims.
Ginsburg said it was reasonable for a copyright holder to delay filing an infringement suit if a film project was stagnant or, as MGM said about "Raging Bull," was "deeply in debt" and unlikely to earn a profit.
The law "allows a copyright owner to defer suit until she can estimate whether the litigation is worth the candle," she wrote.
The three dissenters sided with the studios and said they should not have to defend against such old claims.
"She waited 18 years after renewing the copyright, until 2009, to bring suit. During those 18 years, MGM spent millions of dollars developing different editions of, and marketing, the film," said Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony Kennedy.
MGM has maintained the 1963 screenplay was not the basis for the film.
University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Stephanos Bibas, who represented Petrella, agreed she still must prove her claim of copyright infringement, but said she "looks forward to her day in court to vindicate her father's legacy and life work."