Studio “Down for the Count” in Raging Bull Case: Laches No Bar to Copyright Claim

May 21, 2014

The Supreme Court has ruled that a copyright owner is not time-barred from suing for copyright infringement so long as the suit is filed within three years of an infringing act by the accused infringer. In a case involving the screenplay for the 1980 movie Raging Bull, the author’s daughter successfully appealed the dismissal of her claim against the studio for its continuing exploitation of the film. “Each time an infringing work is reproduced or distributed, the infringer commits a new wrong.” Petrella v. Metro-Goldwin-Mayer, Inc., 527 U.S. ___ (May 19, 2014) (Slip Op., at 5).

Ms. Petrella’s father had assigned his rights in 1976, but after the initial twenty-eight year copyright term expired she renewed the copyright and became the sole owner. When she sued the studio for copyright infringement in 2009, the district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the basis that the claim was barred by laches, meaning that she had delayed unreasonably in bringing her claim to the prejudice of the studio. In reversing, the Supreme Court rejected the notion that a claim brought within a statute of limitations can be barred by the equitable doctrine of laches. “Quite the contrary, we have never applied laches to bar in their entirety claims for discrete wrongs occurring within a federally prescribed limitations period.” Id. at 14.

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