Supreme Court Rules Raging Bull Claims Not Down for the Count

Today the Supreme Court ruled in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. et al., __ U.S. __ (2014), that copyright claims filed by the heir to the author of the screenplay for Raging Bull were not subject to the equitable doctrine of laches. Five Justices joined Justice Ginsberg in finding that the lower courts in the Central District of California and the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals erred in finding that laches barred damages claims by a copyright owner for alleged infringements committed within the Copyright Act's three-year time to sue, holding that, "in the face of a statute of limitations enacted by Congress, laches cannot be invoked to bar legal relief."

The dissent, authored by Justice Breyer and Joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, argued that a bright-line rule would deprive judges of the ability to consider the equitable conduct of plaintiffs in delaying litigation, and place "insufficient weight on the rules and practice of modern litigation," where issues of law and equity are considered in tandem.

The decision guarantees copyright owners the ability to seek monetary recovery for a period of three years prior to bringing suit (in a case of continuing infringement), no matter how long they delayed in bringing the suit after they learned of the first infringement. Notably, the majority found that any risk of "unfair" recovery from an infringer who spent significant amounts developing and selling a derivative work could be avoided by offsets in the recovery under Section 504(b) of the Act. "The defendant thus may retain the return on investment shown to be attributable to its own enterprise, as distinct from the value created by the infringed work," Justice Ginsburg wrote. Of course, parsing the "value created" by the original screenplay for Raging Bull separate and distinct from Martin Scorsese's direction or Robert DeNiro's Oscar-winning performance leaves room for extensive litigation on damages.

The text of the decision can be found here: Petrella v MGM 12-1315_ook3