Despite age, some movies have a legacy that continues to inspire decades after release. For the award-winning classic “Raging Bull,” that influence now also extends into legislation. Earlier this week the Supreme Court weighed in on copyright issues surrounding the movie and came to a decision likely to increase the risks associated with copyright agreements.

The issue lies in the rights to a book and subsequent screenplay that the movie may or may not have been based off of. Frank Patrella along with boxer Jake LaMotta (the subject of the movie) penned that screenplay in 1963. When Patrella died, the copyrights were taken over by his heir, Paula Patrella. Paula Patrella renewed the copyright in 1991, and then filed suit in 2009 for copyright infringement against Metro Goldwyn Mayer Inc. (MGM)

MGM held that the considerable delay between the renewal and the complaint was intentional, and alleged that Paula Patrella waited until the movie became profitable to file legal action. They also asserted that the case should be subject to a laches dismissal, which would throw the case out under the pretense that the plaintiff waited too long to file.

“Laches came out of equity principles, which were designed to fill in the gaps and address instances of unfairness that would happen by strictly enforcing the law,” says Andrew Baum, partner at Foley and Lardner LLP. “In some situations that delay of filing is unfair to the defendant, especially if that defendant has invested in the copyright during that time.”

While the 9th circuit sided with MGM on the matter, after the case made its way to the Supreme Court, justices held that the case is subject only to the statute of limitations under the Copyright Act and could not be dismissed under a laches argument. In other words, because the alleged infringement appeared to have been an ongoing issue rather than a single point in time, Patrella (and others) will now be allowed to sue within a window of that statute of limitations. That limit is three years, and with the complaint filed in 2009, Patrella could sue for royalties and damages going back to 2006.

Baum says, “the decision creates some new and ultimately uninsurable risk, not only for the motion picture industry but for any industry that relies on copyrighted use, including music and potentially software.”  And while it’s unlikely that anyone would seek royalties on a software patent using this new precedent because of the speed with which they become obsolete, says Baum, the decision does now make it a possibility.

“What this does do, is now no matter how many years have gone by, or witnesses have died or documents have disappeared a copyright holder can always sue looking back for three years. And copyrights can last up to 100 years, “Baum says.

Three years prior to a complaint being field is not the only time horizon in question in this case. Should Patrella be able to prove that MGM infringed on her copyright, she could also potentially request an injunction against the company, potentially claiming royalties on the movie until the expiration of those rights.

Mark Haddad, co-chair of Sidley Austin’s global Appellate practice, says, “Paula Petrella landed a punch that would have made Jake LaMotta proud. Petrella is a big win for writers who believe that others have stolen their work.” Haddad also says that, “The Court signaled in a footnote that it may be interested in taking up a similar question in the patent context – whether the Federal Circuit has been wrong for the last 20 years in allowing the defense of laches to bar damages claims in patent infringement suits.”

Whether or not they remember the Robert DeNiro classic, “Raging Bull,” this decision could give plenty of copyright palookas a much needed second wind in their “title” fights.


For more on copyrights, check out these stories:


MGM sues over Raging Bull sequel

Quentin Tarantino lashes out at Gawker once again

The sword and the shield: Building an offensive and defensive IP portfolio