In our Summer 2013 Edition, we first wrote about the copyright dispute between MGM and Paula Petrella, the heir to Frank Petrella, whose works about boxer Jake LaMotta were adapted into the classic film Raging Bull. After Frank Petrella died during the initial copyright period, the renewal rights reverted to his heir, Paula Petrella, who eventually renewed the copyrights in 1991 and became the sole owner. Seven years later, she advised MGM that its exploitation of Raging Bull violated her copyright and threatened suit, prompting negotiations with MGM involving rights issues related to the movie. However, she waited nine years after the talks broke off before filing a copyright infringement suit in 2009. The appeals court ruled that Petrella's delay in bringing suit was unreasonable and warranted dismissal based upon the equitable defense of laches. Already groggy from two judicial knockdowns, Petrella refused to throw in the towel and filed a last-gasp petition…and the Supreme Court took the case.
In a heavyweight ruling, the Court reinstated Petrella's copyright suit and ruled that the laches defense could not bar copyright claims requesting damages brought within the three-year statute of limitations period (Petrella v. MGM, Inc., 2014 WL 2011574 (U.S. May 19, 2014)). As the Court noted, rightsholders can rightly wait to bring suit based upon the existence of recoverable profits: "[T]here is nothing untoward about waiting to see whether an infringer's exploitation undercuts the value of the copyrighted work, has no effect on that work, or even complements it." Surely this ruling will embolden certain rightsholders to come out swinging and reconsider infringement actions involving works long in the marketplace, including hit songs, TV shows, comic books, and, yes, perhaps even other critically acclaimed movies besides those depicting sympathetic, self-destructive fomer middleweight champions.