In 1980, Robert De Niro starred in an Oscar-winning boxing movie, “Raging Bull.” A suit has been brought by Paula Petrella, whose father, Frank P. Petrella, wrote the book and screenplay for the movie. Frank Petrella and his collaborator, boxer Jake LaMotta, assigned the rights to their book and screenplay to Chartoff-Winkler Productions in 1976. Two years later, in 1978, United Artists and MGM acquired the rights to the film. Frank Petrella passed away in 1981 and reverted his copyrights to his daughter.
In 2009, Paula Petrella sued MGM, alleging, among other things, copyright infringement, for creating and distributing copies of the movie. She claimed that she had renewed the copyright to Frank’s work after the initial 28-year term had expired in 1991. Both the federal district court and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected her claims on the grounds that her suit was brought too late. The lower court noted that Petrella “was aware of her potential claim (as was MGM) since 1991, when her attorney filed renewal applications for the 1963 screenplay [and] she did not file her lawsuit until 18 years later, in January 2009.”
The district court held that the copyright infringement claim was barred by the doctrine of laches. The Ninth Circuit agreed while acknowledging that the statute of limitations for copyright claims is three years. The court noted that in order to establish a defense of laches, MGM would need to prove that (1) the plaintiff delayed in initiating the lawsuit, (2) the delay was unreasonable, and (3) the delay resulted in prejudice. The court agreed with the district court that Petrella delayed initiating the lawsuit and that Petrella could not demonstrate that the delay was reasonable. On the issue of prejudice, the court found that MGM expended a substantial amount of financial and other resources distributing, marketing, advertising and promoting the film. The court held that MGM had demonstrated prejudice to sustain its laches defense. The court thus held that Petrella’s copyright infringement claim was barred by laches and refused to reach the merits of the case.
On October 1, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide the appeal. In requesting that the Supreme Court grant review, Petrella’s lawyers said that the Ninth Circuit’s approach conflicted with the separation of powers doctrine, stating that “Congress, not the courts, is responsible for weighing competing interests and policy considerations and setting a limitations period.”