Petrella v. MGM: Supreme Court Recognizes Limits on Laches

by Foley & Lardner LLP

The word “laches” is from French, meaning “remissness” or “slackness.” One of the familiar equitable defenses, laches developed in chancery to prevent unreasonable delay in pursuing a right or claim, lest that delay prejudice the defendant. Normally equitable defenses can be applied broadly. “Equity” itself comes from the Latin “aequitas,” a concept of justice, equality, or fairness. Last week’s decision from the Supreme Court in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, No. 12-1315 (May 19, 2014), however, teaches that there are limits to this venerable defense.

Petrella stems from the 1980 film Raging Bull, directed by Martin Scorsese. The movie starred Robert De Niro, portraying troubled boxer Jake LaMotta. The real LaMotta memorialized the story of his career in two screenplays and one book, with the help of life-long friend Frank Petrella years earlier. LaMotta and Petrella assigned their rights to a film company in 1976. Though critically acclaimed, initially the movie was not a commercial success.

The petitioner, Paula Petrella, is Frank Petrella’s daughter. In 1991 she renewed the copyrights in her father’s work after his 1981 death, having learned from an attorney that assignments of copyrights revert to an author’s heirs at death. In 1998 Paula’s attorney informed MGM that Raging Bull infringed on her renewed copyright. MGM denied the claim, and, after having waited for the film to become profitable, Paula brought suit in 2009 in California. MGM raised the defense of laches in its motion for summary judgment (based on the 18-year delay between the renewal of the copyright and filing suit), and the district court granted the motion. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

What was unique about the case was the statute of limitations. 17 U.S.C. § 507(b) is a three-year look-back limitations period. Infringement is a violation subject to the separate-accrual rule, so the statute of limitations runs from each successive act of infringement, a sort of continuing violation. Paula, therefore, could recover damages for the three years preceding 2009. (Undoubtedly she had no interest in the earlier years, since she needed to prove damages based on the film’s commercial success.)

Paula argued that laches should not bar her claim where the statute of limitations operates to limit it to three years. The Supreme Court agreed in a 6-3 opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg that was in no way limited to the Copyright Act. Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy.

Laches, the Court held, “is a defense developed by courts of equity; its principal application was, and remains, to claims of an equitable cast for which the Legislature has provided no fixed time limitation.” In other words, absent extraordinary circumstances in which the doctrine might still operate against an equitable remedy, “in face of a statute of limitations enacted by Congress, laches cannot be invoked to bar legal relief.” The statute of limitations trumps the equitable defense.

This appears to be an undecided issue in Wisconsin. No Wisconsin court has reached precisely this conclusion, though old Wisconsin cases recognize that courts applying laches are inclined to mimic the statutes of limitations for similar actions at law. Perhaps a Wisconsin court will one day draw the connection between that line of authority and the idea that the existence of a limitations period precludes a defendant from using laches as a defense.

View This Blog


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Foley & Lardner LLP | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Foley & Lardner LLP

Foley & Lardner LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at:

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.