‘Raging Bull’ Case Reaches the Supreme Court
Disputes over film rights are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. Most of them are dismissed. So it will be a rarity on Tuesday, when the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in a case over the rights to “Raging Bull,” the 1980 Martin Scorsese movie about boxer Jake LaMotta.
Paula Petrella claims she has an interest in the movie given that in the 1960s and early 1970s, her father Frank Petrella wrote a book and two screenplays based on LaMotta’s career, either on his own or in collaboration with the retired prizefighter. The nine justices, however, won’t be deciding on the thorny lineage of “Raging Bull,” but whether Petrella waited too long to press her copyright infringement claim against MGM.
The “doctrine of laches” — the concept that lawsuits can’t be brought to court if there is an unreasonable delay — is one tool that studios have used to promptly get a summary judgment in their favor. In Paula Petrella’s case, she filed her suit in 2009, but a district court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals applied the doctrine of laches in ruling that she waited too long.
The Copyright Act has a three year statute of limitations, and because MGM has continued to release “Raging Bull” in various formats, Petrella’s claim fell within it. But the courts held that because she was made aware of her potential rights to the work as far back as 1991, ten years after her father’s death, she was unreasonable in her delay in filing suit.
Unlikely as it is that her case made it to the highest court, the Supreme Court’s decision has potentially significant implications for Hollywood. “This is, economically, a very significant issue, because it has to do with when you can sue for copyright infringement,” said Jay Dougherty, professor of law at Loyola Law School and director of the university’s entertainment and media law institute.
The studios say the case is an issue of fairness. Because they own vast libraries that are continually being released in new platforms, they are constantly resetting the clock for copyright and its statute of limitations. Without laches as a defense, there would be the constant threat of authors, their families and their estates coming out of the woodwork to lay claim to ownership of certain projects. In MGM’s case, the studio spent $8.5 million distributing and promoting the movie on the assumption there was no dispute over its ownership.
“When plaintiffs unreasonably sit on their rights and sue only after [a studio or distributor] have devoted significant resources to making the copyrighted material profitable, laches serves important interests of fairness and finality, without which the validity of a work’s further distribution would remain permanently in doubt,” the MPAA said in an amicus brief to the high court. They were joined by the Assn. of American Publishers, the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn., and the Software & Information Industry Assn.
The case, the studios say, has parallels to the legendary battle over the rights to James Bond. Kevin McClory collaborated with Ian Fleming and another writer on the screenplay to “Thunderball.” McClory secured certain rights to “Thunderball” in a settlement in the 1960s, but he asserted in litigation in the late 1990s that he had a claim for damages and profits from every James Bond film released by Danjaq Prods. But the district court and the 9th Circuit ruled in 2001 that his claim was barred by laches, even though the Bond movies continued to collect money in rereleases. They said that his wait of decades to press the claim was “unjustified and unreasonable.” Many witnesses and records were gone by then, and Danjaq had since invested millions in the Bond franchise, the court noted.