How Reasonable Was Delay in 'Raging Bull' Claims?

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Gibson Dunn's Mark Perry
Gibson Dunn's Mark Perry

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struggled with whether a person's unreasonable delay in filing a copyright infringement action can be used to bar that lawsuit.

The justices heard arguments in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a case stemming from a dispute over the rights to “Raging Bull,” the 1980 Martin Scorsese film based on the life of World Middle Weight Champion Jake LaMotta.

The issue before the justices is whether the doctrine of laches can be a defense to a copyright claim when the claim is filed within the Copyright Act's three-year statute of limitations.

Laches is a "gap filler," and Congress in the Copyright Act filled the gap with a clear, bright-line rule: the three-year statute of limitations, Stephanos Bibas of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law argued for Paula Petrella.

Petrella sued MGM for copyright infringement in 2009—18 years after she had renewed her father's copyright in the screenplay that she contends became the basis for “Raging Bull.” She sought to recover damages for the three-year period from 2006 to 2009. Her father, Frank Petrella, who had collaborated with LaMotta on screenplays and a book, died in 1981 and his rights in the works reverted to his daughter.

A federal district court granted summary judgment to MGM on the studio's defense of laches after finding that the delay in filing was unreasonable and had prejudiced MGM in terms of its access to witnesses and evidence and its business expectations.

The three-year statute of limitations in the act runs separately for each act of infringement. That rolling statute of limitations, combined with very lengthy copyrights, could allow a plaintiff to wait for decades to sue in order to maximize her financial gain, Justice Elena Kagan suggested. "A plaintiff can wait 20 years."

Whether a plaintiff brings suit now or in 20 years, she recovers only for three years under the act, Bibas replied, while the defendant has had 17 years of benefits and profits.

MGM's counsel, Mark Perry of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, argued, "This court said over five times that where you have a rolling statute of limitations, laches is a necessary protection for the defendant because the events may move so far away from the underlying facts, which is very true here."

If the objective is to get a plaintiff to sue early, why is it unreasonable for a plaintiff to wait to see if her copyright is worth anything, if there have been no profits and it would cost her more to sue than she could possibly receive in damages, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked.

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