In a copyright decision involving the legendary Martin Scorsese movie “Raging Bull,” an unusual mix of Supreme Court justices agreed to allow a lawsuit to continue against the film’s movie studio.
In one corner was a group of six justices that crossed ideological lines: liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who were joined by conservatives Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
The small dissenting group included the Court’s more-middle ground: Chief Justice John Roberts, Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy.
So in what the boxing world would consider a split decision, the daughter of the man who wrote a 1963 screenplay about boxer Jake LaMotta can pursue a copyright damages case against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. over profits from the “Raging Bull” movie.
“In sum, the courts below erred in treating laches as a complete bar to Petrella’s copyright infringement suit,” said Ginsburg, who wrote the majority opinion in the case of Petrella v. MGM.
The Court’s plot line in the Petrella case didn’t match the excitement of the fight scenes in “Raging Bull” and it focused on an important aspect of copyright law known as laches. The legal doctrine of laches sets a time limit on how long someone can wait to file a lawsuit.
Frank Petrella took part in a 1963 screenplay about LaMotta, and he later worked on a book and screenplay with LaMotta. The 1980 movie directed by Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro eventually became a hit, but Petrella died in 1981.
His daughter, Paula Petrella, inherited the copyright for the original screenplay. And after years of discussions, in 2009 she filed a copyright suit contending she should receive some of the profits from the re-release of “Raging Bull.”
Under copyright law, Petrella could only seek damages for a three-year period dating back to 2006 from the movie’s re-release.
MGM argued that laches prevented Paula Petrella from waiting for decades to file a lawsuit, and that the lawsuit was timed to get Petrella more money from the lawsuit.
The lower courts had favored MGM in their rulings, until the Supreme Court ruled that Paula Petrella could pursue a lawsuit.
“And the equitable relief Petrella seeks—e.g., disgorgement of unjust gains and an injunction against future infringement—would not result in ‘total destruction’ of the film, or anything close to it,” Ginsburg said.
In his dissent, Breyer said the decision could change a long history of law about the subject.
“In those few and unusual cases where a plaintiff unreasonably delays in bringing suit and consequently causes inequitable harm to the defendant, the doctrine permits a court to bring about a fair result. I see no reason to erase the doctrine from copyright’s lexicon, not even in respect to limitations periods applicable to damages actions,” Breyer said.
For now, Petrella will return to the courts to pursue damages again in the case.
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