“The Raging Bull” in the Supreme Court
On October 1st, the Supreme Court granted cert. to resolve a dispute concerning the copyrights of the Oscar-winning movie “Raging Bull.”
The 1980 film “Raging Bull” tells the story of Jake LaMotta, an Italian American middleweight boxer whose emotionally self-destructive temper and rage led him to the top of his career while destroying his life outside the ring. The film, adapted from Jake LaMotta’s memoir Raging Bull: My Story, was directed by Martin Scorsese, and starred Robert Deniro. Although it was not a great success at the box office, likely due to its violent content, the film received outstanding reviews, was nominated for eight Academy Awards (of which it won two), and by the end of the 80’s had established its reputation as a “modern classic.”
Frank Petrella collaborated with Jake LaMotta to produce a book and two screenplays that formed the basis for the film. Following Frank Petrella’s death in 1981, his copyrights passed to his daughter Paula Petrella. In 1991, Paula’s attorney filed copyright renewal applications for the 1963 screenplay. Eighteen years later, Paula sued Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. (MGM) for copyright infringement for making and distributing copies of the movie.
Although copyright law would have allowed the suit, as its three-year statute-of- limitations starts over with each new infringement and MGM was still exploiting the film in homevideo release, both the district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, nonetheless said Paula unreasonably delayed and could no longer bring suit. Once dubbed “the court of appeals for the Hollywood circuit,” it is of no surprise that the Ninth Circuit sided with the studio.
So why has the Supreme Court, who so rarely addresses copyright issues, agreed to hear a copyright case concerning a movie released in 1980?
The Supreme Court will resolve a severe split among the circuits as to whether or not the common law “laches” principle can used to bar all remedies for civil copyright claims filed within the statute-of-limitations period prescribed by Congress. Those in favor of the laches doctrine argue that it is unfair for copyright holders like Petrella to sit back and wait while studios expend time and money making a particular work profitable before bringing suit. Those opposed to the application of laches claim that courts should not be able to use common law principles to override explicit statutory time lines; as Petrella’s lawyers put forth, “Congress, not the courts, is responsible for weighing competing interests and policy considerations and setting a limitations period,” and allowing judges to disregard these set limitations in favor of common law principles such as laches potentially raises separation of powers issues.
If the Supreme Court finds laches cannot be used in the face of limitation periods set forth by statute, studios will be deprived of one defense in copyright infringement suits and plaintiffs’ lawyers throughout Hollywood will rejoice. Perhaps the Court will declare a middle ground, allowing for laches to be applied in certain circumstances (such as barring injunctive relief but not the recovery of damages). The outcome is difficult to predict; regardless, the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a copyright case and take the “bull” by its horns ought to stir excitement throughout the entertainment/IP legal community.