Wednesday 2 October 2013

US Supreme Court to Hear Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.

On Tuesday morning, the US Supreme Court granted
The Raging Bull (1980)
certiorari in the case of Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). The question presented is:

Whether the nonstatutory defense of laches is available without restriction to bar all remedies for civil copyright claims filed within the three-year statute of limitations prescribed by Congress, 17 U.S.C.(b)?”

Jake LaMotta retired from professional boxing in 1954. In 1963, LaMotta collaborated with long-time friend, Frank Peter Petrella, to produce a screenplay based on his life.  The copyright in this screenplay was subsequently transferred to Chartoff-Winkler Productions in 1976. Two years later United Artists, a subsidiary of MGM, acquired the motion picture rights from Chartoff-Winkler.  MGM and United Artists went on to produce the highly acclaimed 1980 biopic, Raging Bull, based on the life of LaMotta.

Mr. Petrella passed away in 1981. Because he died during the first twenty-eight years of the copyright term, his renewal rights reverted to his heirs.  In 1991, Mr. Petrella’s daughter, Paula, successfully renewed the copyright in the 1963 screenplay. Despite the renewal, MGM and United Artists continued to reproduce and distribute the movie. In 1998 Ms. Petrella contacted MGM and United Artists to assert her exclusive rights but distribution of the film continued.

In 2009, Ms. Petrella sued MGM for copyright infringement. As section 507(b) of the Copyright Act 1976 establishes a three-year statute of limitations, Ms. Petrella claimed damages only for the copyright infringement occurring between 2006 and 2009. The defendants countered that the equitable defense of laches applied. Because Ms. Petrella first became aware of the infringement in 1991, she ought to be barred from claiming copyright infringement during the 2006 to 2009 period, MGM claimed. In 2010, the US District Court for the Central District of California agreed with MGM that laches applied. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently upheld the decision.

In April 2013, Ms. Petrella petitioned the US Supreme Court to resolve this issue. In requesting a determination, her petition stated that the federal courts of appeals currently are split on whether laches applies in such cases. Three circuits believe that laches never applies in such circumstances; two believe it only applies in the most rare cases; only the ninth circuit believes it routinely applies. She further argues that allowing this split to continue will breed forum shopping, and that it runs counter to Congress’s desire to maintain a uniform national copyright law. Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and we now await the decision.

This blogger is particularly interested in this question. Please feel free to tell me what the situation is like in other jurisdictions.

1 comment:

Luís Paulo said...

Interesting case. Since you asked about other jurisdictions, I can tell you that in mine (Brazil) if there were any acts of reproduction or distribution that were carried out recently (within the statute of limitations period - 5 years), Ms Petrella could certainly be compensated for damages within that period.
Then again, there is no such thing in our legal system as the equitable of defence of laches. The courts would simply look at the statute of limitations and whether any unauthorised acts occurred during that period.