The 1980 film Raging Bull is considered by many a classic, earning two Academy Awards as well as frequent placement on most lists of the greatest films ever made. But one fight viewers have never seen recently made its way to the highest court in the land, and the ruling could affect future copyright lawsuits.
The Supreme Court has reinstated a lawsuit by the daughter of Frank Petrella, the writer of the original 1963 screenplay, seeking damages from MGM for the continued distribution of the film. The basis for the suit is a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that a copyright cannot be renewed by its owners without the permission of the original owner’s heirs. When Mr. Petrella died in 1981, a year after the film’s release, his daughter Paula inherited the rights to the screenplay; Ms. Petrella subsequently filed for renewal of the screenplay in 1991. In 1998, she informed MGM of her filing, informing the studio that any exploitation of any derivative work, namely Raging Bull, would be infringing on her copyright.
The case had previously been dismissed by two lower courts under the principle of laches, or an unreasonable delay on the part of the plaintiffs to file suit. Petrella did not file suit against MGM until 2009, though dating back to advising MGM of her copyright filing in 1998 she had been in contact with MGM numerous times regarding the studio’s continued marketing of the film. She is seeking damages only for the three-year period prior to her suit, as limited by statute. MGM argued that Petrella waited to file suit until the film started to become profitable, and that the undue delay has harmed their defense, as several key witnesses have subsequently passed away. The Supreme Court found in favor of Petrella by a 6-3 decision.
Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg upheld the defendant’s right to sue for damages based upon instances of infringement more recent to the relevant suit, in this case MGM’s continued marketing of Raging Bull. She cites the coupling of the three-year limitation with the separate-accrual rule as a tool to allow plaintiffs to see if the damage of an infringement is worth the expense of mounting a legal challenge. Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer will now head back to the lower court for adjudication. In allowing copyright holders to essentially pick and choose when they can file suit, detractors fear a flood of delayed copyright lawsuits pursued by those who would now see their window reopened by this ruling.
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