Academic journal article Southern Law Journal

Closing the Laches: Does the Split Decision in the Raging Bull Case Finally Bring Some Consistency to the Doctrine of Laches in Copyright Infringement?

Academic journal article Southern Law Journal

Closing the Laches: Does the Split Decision in the Raging Bull Case Finally Bring Some Consistency to the Doctrine of Laches in Copyright Infringement?

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

This article addresses the 2014 Supreme Court decision, Petrella v. Metro Goldwyn Mayor, Inc. In 2009, Paula Petrella sued MGM for copyright infringement claiming that her deceased father, Frank, wrote the screenplay that was made into the 1980 movie, Raging Bull. MGM prevailed in the district and appellate courts, but the Supreme Court reversed, ruling six-tothree that the defense of laches, the equitable argument that MGM relied upon to get a summary judgment, does not provide an automatic bar to pursuing copyright infringement cases.

The following sections examine the controversy surrounding the doctrine of laches in copyright cases and discusses inconsistent interpretations offered by various appellate jurisdictions. Part I analyzes the Petrella case. Part II discusses some details of U.S. copyright law including the historical background of the statute of limitations and the doctrine of laches. Part III examines the Supreme Court's rationale in Petrella, including a look at the dissent. Part IV discusses the potential impact of the decision for copyright infringement cases going forward.

I. THE RAGING BULL CASE

"You win, you win, if you lose, you still win. " - Joey Lamotta

This well-known line from the Martin Scorsese film Raging Bull was spoken by Joey Lamotta as he tried to convince his brother Jake, nicknamed the Raging Bull, to fight at a lower weight in order to earn a shot at a title fight.1 The line may work very well in this scene from the movie, but when it comes to the Raging Bull copyright infringement case, Petrella vs. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Inc. (MGM), the win-win, lose-win philosophy was not going to work. In fact, MGM learned the hard way that even when you win, you can still lose. While MGM prevailed at the district and appellate court levels, the Supreme Court gave new life to the plaintiffs case by granting certiorari. The Supreme Court granted certiorari primarily to deal with the inconsistencies found in circuit court rulings in copyright infringement cases. Ultimately, on May 14, 2014, in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the equitable defense of laches, the legal argument that MGM relied upon to obtain their summary judgment at the district court level, does not provide an automatic bar to pursuing copyright infringement cases.2

In this case, the Plaintiff Paula Petrella brought a copyright infringement suit in 2009 against MGM claiming that her deceased father, Frank Petrella, wrote the screenplay that was made into the movie Raging Bull, which was released in 1980.3 Some of the essential facts of the case were not in dispute. Jake Lamotta did collaborate with Frank Petrella on two screenplays, copyrighted in 1963 and 1973 as well as the Jake Lamotta memoir, Raging Bull: My Story, published in 1970.4 Jake LaMotta and Frank Petrella later assigned exclusive rights to the three works to Chartoff-Winkler Productions, Inc., which subsequently assigned those rights to United Artists Corporation, a subsidiary of MGM.5 The film Raging Bull was copyrighted by MGM when it was released in 1980.6

When Frank Petrella passed away in 1981, Paula inherited the copyrights to her father's original 1963 screenplay, since it was still within the twenty-eight year copyright period.7 In 1991, twenty-eight years after the 1963 copyright, Paula Petrella filed an application for the renewal of copyright for the original screenplay which was granted.s Although the copyright renewal was filed in a timely manner, Ms. Petrella did not approach any discussion of the legal claim with MGM until 1998. That year, through her attorney, she communicated to MGM claiming her copyrights to the 1963 screenplay and any derivative works, and further claiming that MGM infringed on those rights with the Raging Bull film.9 Despite a decade of back and forth communication, no progress was made to settle the dispute, and litigation was finally initiated in 2009.10 With the filing of the 2009 suit, she sought to prove that the Raging Bull film infringed on her father's work in that original screenplay and claimed a percentage of the proceeds dating from 2006. …

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