POSTED BY Christopher Barnett
Legendary boxer Giacobbe “Jake” LaMotta has had an incredible career. Nicknamed “The Bronx Bull” and “The Raging Bull”, LaMotta is a former Middleweight Champion of the World. In 1980 his fame propelled him to the big screen, when he was portrayed by Robert De Niro in the Hollywood hit, The Raging Bull. The movie was based on a screenplay authored by Frank P. Petrella in collaboration with LaMotta. Petrella and LaMotta sold their rights to the screenplay to a company in 1976, and in 1980 United Artists began production of the film The Raging Bull. Petrella died shortly after the film debuted.
In 1991 United Artist’s ownership in the copyright expired, and the rights reverted back to Petrella’s estate, specifically Petrella’s daughter, Paula Petrella. Despite this, United Artists and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer continued, and continue to this day, to promote and profit off of sales of the movie. Petrella repeatedly contacted the movie firms through various attorneys requesting they stop promoting and reaping all the benefits of the movie, however, she did not officially file a lawsuit until 2009.
Under the 1976 Copyright Act, the 2009 suit is well within the statute of limitations given the ongoing infringement. See 17 U.S.C. § 507(b) (2013). The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, however, said that her claim was barred by the doctrine of laches. The doctrine of laches gives the judge presiding over a case carte blanche in determining whether a claim is too stale, or old, to be brought.
The issue of the doctrine of laches being invoked in the face of statutorily prescribed time limitations is one that reveals a deep circuit split among at least six circuits. Some circuits flat out bar it when a claim is brought within the limitations period, and others allow it in a variety of circumstances. Although SCOTUS has the final word, Congress should be the entity that decides the tolling period for bringing infringement claims. The statutory language of The Copyright Act was chosen carefully, and to eschew it for a common law antiquated doctrine undermines the legal system.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in October; the decision is expected in Spring of 2014.