Supreme Court Allows 'Raging Bull' Heiress to Sue MGM for Copyright Damages

Raging Bull Still De Niro Pesci - H 2014
Courtesy of Everett Collection

Raging Bull Still De Niro Pesci - H 2014

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Paula Petrella, whose father, Frank Petrella, wrote works that allegedly became the basis for Martin Scorsese's classic film Raging Bull, starring Robert De Niro.

Petrella asserts that because her father died in 1981, before the original term of the copyright grant expired, rights to Raging Bull reverted to the heirs. She's suing MGM and 20th Century Fox for at least $1 million in damages from alleged copyright infringement in the continued distribution of the film. Before the case got to the Supreme Court, it was rejected by lower courts because of the doctrine of laches, which prohibits delayed lawsuits that have a prejudicial effect on defendants.

STORY: 'Raging Bull' Fight to Hit Supreme Court

But in a 6-3 majority opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the high court holds that the equitable defense of laches can't be invoked to preclude damages claims brought within the applicable three-year statute of limitations. (Writing in dissent was Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy.)

Read the full opinion here.

Petrella filed her lawsuit in 2009, which was 18 years after the copyright on Raging Bull was renewed. During this time, she contacted MGM and made an issue of the continued exploitation of Raging Bull, but thanks in large part to difficulties lining up legal representation, it would take her nearly two decades before she actually stepped forward in a court room.

In response to the lawsuit, the defendants brought forward various arguments why such a delay couldn't be tolerated. In those 18 years, three key potential witnesses had died, for instance. And then there was the argument, supported by the MPAA in an amicus brief, that studios distributing films make all sorts of licensing deals with cable television and third party vendors like Netflix, iTunes and Amazon. To allow the specter of delayed copyright lawsuits from the likes of Petrella, whose father wrote LaMotta's autobiography and an early screenplay in the 1960s, could impact the investment made towards the distribution of works.

STORY: Supreme Court Will Hear 'Raging Bull' Dispute

Judicial circuits throughout the country have disagreed about how to square the defense of laches with the statute of limitations. In most instances, copyright plaintiffs have three years to bring a lawsuit, but if the injury continues, a plaintiff can at least collect damages going back three years before the claim. In Petrella v. MGM, however, the 9th Circuit essentially said that laches trumped this. The California Society of Entertainment Lawyers in its own amicus brief thought the ruling to be an example of the hostility shown to copyright plaintiffs.

"The expansive role for laches MGM envisions careens away from understandings, past and present, of the essentially gap-filling, not legislation-overriding, office of laches," writes Justice Ginsburg in her opinion. "Nothing in this Court’s precedent suggests a doctrine of such sweep. Quite the contrary, we have never applied laches to bar in their entirety claims for discrete wrongs occurring within a federally prescribed limitations period. Inviting individual judges to set a time limit other than the one Congress prescribed, we note, would tug against the uniformity Congress sought to achieve when it enacted §507(b)."

The justice goes on to open a path towards more copyright lawsuits that will undoubtedly be alarming to Hollywood studios.

"It is hardly incumbent on copyright owners, however, to challenge each and every actionable infringement," she writes in explaining why a plaintiff might not sue right away. "And there is nothing untoward about waiting to see whether an infringer’s exploitation undercuts the value of the copyrighted work, has no effect on the original work, or even complements it... If the rule were, as MGM urges, 'sue soon, or forever hold your peace,” copyright owners would have to mount a federal case fast to stop seemingly innocuous infringements, lest those infringements eventually grow in magnitude."

STORY: Appeals Court Rejects Bid to Rip 'Raging Bull' Rights Away From MGM

As a result of the ruling, as this case goes forward back at the lower court, Petrella will be able to seek damages back to 2006, three years before the filing of her lawsuit. The decision does offer MGM and Fox one saving grace, though. It will allow the defendants to retain any "investment shown to be attributable to its own enterprise, as distinct from the value created by the infringed work."

Justice Ginsburg also says that the District Court can take account of Petrella's delay in commencing legal action when determining what damages should be awarded as well as determining the appropriate injunctive relief. If Petrella is successful on the merits of her claims -- and she'll still need to show that her father's work was infringed -- she might theoretically be able to get a court to halt further distribution of Raging Bull without her consent.

"Obviously we're pleased with and gratified by the Court's ruling," Petrella's attorney Stephanos Bibas tells THR. "Though there are still plenty of other obstacles to proving copyright infringement, this ruling removes one important technical barrier that tilted the playing field against small authors, artists, and creators in Hollywood.  Ms. Petrella looks forward to her day in court to vindicate her father's legacy and life work."

Twitter: @eriqgardner