The Supreme Court revived a copyright suit against MGM over recent profits from the 1980 film classic "Raging Bull," ruling Monday that the daughter of the original screenwriter did not wait too long to file her claim.
The 6-3 decision is a setback for the Hollywood studios, which have relied on a legal doctrine that old copyright claims should be thrown out.
In the "Raging Bull" case, Frank Petrella was registered as the sole author of the 1963 screenplay depicting the life of boxing champion Jake LaMotta. The two had collaborated on a book and the screenplay, which led to the 1980 movie directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro.
Petrella died in 1981, but his daughter, Paula, renewed the copyright on the original screenplay. And in 2009, she filed a copyright suit in Los Angeles contending she should receive some of the profits from the re-release of the movie.
The Copyright Act of 1976 says copyright holders can seek royalties going back only three years, so Petrella's claim was limited to profits only from 2006.
A federal judge and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out her claim based on the legal doctrine of "laches," a finding that her claim was stale because she had waited too long to assert her rights.
Petrella appealed to the Supreme Court and won a reversal.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the law allows copyright holders to bring old claims, and the 9th Circuit was wrong to bar them. However, she did not say Petrella will necessarily win in the end.
Sometimes, it makes sense for a copyright holder to wait to see if a movie project will make money, she said. The law "allows a copyright owner to defer suit until she can estimate whether litigation is worth the candle," Ginsburg wrote.