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Last week, in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Paula Petrella could sue MGM for copyright infringement–more than 30 years after Raging Bull hit the cinema and won two Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Robert De Niro). Petrella’s father collaborated with boxer Jake LaMotta on two screenplays and a book that was the basis for the 1980 film, directed by Martin Scorsese.
The screenplay at issue was written in 1963, and sold in 1976 to a production company that was later bought out by MGM. Petrella died a year after the film’s release, and a 1990 Supreme Court decision prohibited MGM from renewing the copyright for the film without the original copyright owner’s heir’s permission. This is not MGM’s first copyright dispute over this film.
Petrella first brought her lawsuit in 2009 seeking royalties for the three years, 2006 to 2009, permitted under the Copyright Act of 1976 and an injunction against future use. Two lower courts had previously thrown her case out based on the doctrine of “laches,” believing Petrella’s claim stale because she had waited too long to sue. In the Court’s opinion, Justice Ginsburg states that the small fraction of the decades of profits affected by the lawsuit are not the type of inequitable harm from a delayed lawsuit that would warrant the Ninth Circuit denying a plaintiff the right to continue the suit. Ginsburg states that the statute allows a copyright holder to delay bringing suit, which allows them to wait until they know if the project will make money, making litigation worthwhile. The length of time Petrella waited to sue could affect the amount of damages she receives.
Some lawyers are concerned the Supreme Court has set a dangerous precedent that could result in many other decades old lawsuits. However, the statutory maximum of $150,000 and difficulty of calculating profits makes it likely most resulting cases will be settled out of court.
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