On Monday, the Supreme Court decided a case that featured a famous movie — and a legal doctrine that most Americans have never heard of. The immediate loser was MGM, but the ruling will also make life difficult — too difficult — for other film studios, publishers and producers.
The movie is the 1980 classic “Raging Bull,” directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro as prizefighter Jake LaMotta. In 1976, LaMotta and a friend, Frank Petrella, assigned the rights to a book and two screenplays about LaMotta’s career to a production company. Later the rights passed to MGM. The rest is cinematic history.
When Petrella died, his copyrights were inherited by his daughter Paula. She renewed the copyright for one of the screenplays in 1991 but didn’t file suit against MGM for infringement until 2009. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the suit couldn’t go forward because Paula Petrella had waited too long. The decision was based on the legal doctrine known as “laches,” which refers to an "unreasonable delay pursuing a right or claim... in a way that prejudices the [opposing] party."
But the Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, overturned the 9th Circuit, saying that the case wasn’t governed by the laches doctrine because Congress had enacted a statute allowing copyright suits to be filed within three years of an infringement. Paula Petrella’s argument is that MGM, which has continued to market “Raging Bull” in various formats over the years, committed infringements in the three-year period before she sued.
Assuming that Petrella and MGM don’t settle the case, a trial will now be held at which she will argue that continued distribution of “Raging Bull” violates the copyright on the screenplay she holds, while the studio will argue (among other things) that the finished film isn’t substantially similar to that script.
The legal issue in this case is terribly technical: Whether a statute of limitations in an act of Congress trumps the laches principle. But the broader question is whether the courts will require people with legal claims to bring them within a reasonable period of time, an issue that has implications for all sorts of lawsuits.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen G. Breyer noted that Paula Petrella “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. MGM also entered into numerous licensing agreements, some of which allowed television networks to broadcast the film through 2015. Meanwhile, three key witness died or became unavailable, making it more difficult for MGM to prove that it did not infringe the petitioner’s copyright.”
The doctrine of laches belongs to a subdivision of the law known as “equity,” which allows courts to use their judgment of the circumstances to ensure a fair result. Whatever the merits of Paula Petrella’s copyright claim, she waited too long to get into the ring with MGM. That is what the court should have held.