This post was written by Michael E. Strauss and Stacy K. Marcus.
In a recent Forbes article, Brad Newberg discussed in depth the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., and ways for businesses to adapt in light of the shocking decision. With its decision in Petrella, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that in the world of copyright infringement litigation, time is not always of the essence. The question presented was simple: “[W]hether the equitable defense of laches (unreasonable, prejudicial delay in commencing suit) may bar relief on a copyright infringement claim brought within § 507(b) [of the Copyright Act]’s three-year statute of limitations period.” And the Court’s answer was clear: “[C]ourts are not at liberty to jettison Congress’ judgment on the timeliness of suit. Laches, we hold, cannot be invoked to preclude adjudication of a claim for damages brought within the three-year window.” Yet, the implications of this case going forward are not quite as simple or clear.
Frank Petrella wrote a screenplay depicting the career of famed boxer Jake LaMotta. In 1963, the screenplay became a copyrighted work registered with the United States Copyright Office. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (“MGM”) acquired the rights to use Petrella’s screenplay in 1976. Eventually, through famed director Martin Scorsese and Academy Award winning actor Robert De Niro, MGM transformed Petrella’s screenplay into the critically acclaimed 1980 motion picture “Raging Bull.” When Petrella died in 1981, his renewal rights reverted to his daughter, Paula Petrella. Paula renewed her father’s copyright in 1991. Though Paula informed MGM of the renewed copyright, MGM continued to market and sell “Raging Bull” without permission. Paula brought an action against MGM in 2009, 18 years after the renewal. She alleged that MGM’s “Raging Bull”—a derivative of her father’s 1963 screenplay—infringed upon her renewed copyright.
Relying on the equitable doctrine of laches, MGM successfully dismissed Paula’s action as untimely. On appeal to the Ninth Circuit, the trial court’s order was affirmed. However, when Paula’s case reached the Supreme Court, an alternate ending was written. Writing for the 6–3 majority, Justice Ginsburg noted that the Copyright Act (the “Act”) does not require copyright owners to “sue soon, or forever hold [their] peace.” Instead, the Act expressly contemplates the limitations period for copyright infringement actions, and courts need not render equitable decisions on the timeliness of such suits. Accordingly, the laches defense—once a permissible ground for dismissing an action where Congress failed to enact a statute of limitations—is not viable under the Copyright Act because Congress has mandated a three-year limitations period. Under the Act, each infringing act equates to a new wrong, thus triggering a new limitations period. This means, no matter how long a plaintiff knew of the infringing conduct, he or she is not time-barred from litigating claims that fall within the three-year window. Therefore, despite waiting 18 years, Paula Petrella will have her day in court to argue that she is entitled to damages resulting from any MGM infringing conduct that occurred from 2006 through 2009.