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Supreme Court Ensures Copyright Suit against MGM "Rages" On

By Barry Werbin and Sharon O'Shaughnessy
Herrick, Feinstein LLP

In Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., the Supreme Court delivered a TKO to MGM when it decided, in a 6-3 decision on May 19, 2014, that the equitable defense of laches cannot be invoked as a defense to preclude claims brought within the Copyright Act's three-year statute of limitations for successive acts of copyright infringement. As a result, screenwriter Paula Petrella (Petrella) may continue to pursue more than $1 million in damages for MGM's continued distribution of the classic film Raging Bull. The decision likely sounds the death knell for laches as an affirmative defense in copyright infringement litigation and has the potential to expose Hollywood studios, music labels and media companies to an onslaught of cases brought by copyright holders' heirs and estates seeking a share of profits from classic films, TV shows, music recordings and other creative works that are re-released in various formats.

By way of background, Frank Petrella collaborated with renowned boxer Jake LaMotta on a screenplay about LaMotta's life, which inspired the Oscar-winning film Raging Bull. The screenplay was copyrighted in 1963. In 1976, Frank Petrella and LaMotta assigned their rights and renewal rights, which were later acquired by United Artists, then a subsidiary of MGM. In 1980, MGM released Raging Bull and registered a copyright in the film. MGM continued to market the film, including converting it into DVD and Blu-ray formats, which did not exist in 1980.

Frank Petrella died in 1981, during the initial copyright term, thereby vesting the copyright in the screenplay with his daughter, Paula, who renewed the copyright in 1991, thus becoming its sole owner. For works copyrighted under the 1909 Copyright Act (pre-1978), the Supreme Court had previously confirmed in Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207, 221 (1990) that when an author who has assigned her rights away "dies before the renewal period, . . . the assignee may continue to use the original work only if the author's successor transfers the renewal rights to the assignee."

In 1998, Petrella's counsel advised MGM that its exploitation of Raging Bull violated her copyright and threatened suit, repeating such threats over the next two years. Petrella, however, did not actually file suit until January 6, 2009, when she filed claims against MGM seeking (i) monetary damages due to acts of infringement resulting from MGM's continuing commercial use of the film (as a derivative work of the screenplay) after January 6, 2006 (including its continual release of the film on DVD and other digital formats); and (ii) injunctive relief prohibiting further distribution of the work without compensation.

Under Section 505(b) of the Copyright Act, copyright plaintiffs have three years to bring suit from the accrual date of a claim. However, if acts of infringement are repeated anew, the statute of limitations operates on a "rolling" basis that allows a plaintiff to collect damages going back three years before the claim accrues. In barring Petrella's action, however, the district court and the Ninth Circuit disregarded the Copyright Act's three-year look-back period for statute of limitations purposes and, instead, held that the equitable defense of laches precluded Petrella from bringing suit because she had unreasonably delayed suit by not filing until 2009. The Ninth Circuit affirmed and agreed with the studio's argument that Petrella's 18-year delay was unreasonable in light of Petrella having been aware of her potential claims many years earlier. The Supreme Court then granted certiorari to resolve a Circuit split concerning the application of laches to infringement claims brought within the three-year statute of limitations under the Act.

MGM argued that delayed copyright lawsuits could impact studios' investments made towards the distribution of works and also pointed to the challenges of trying a case on a delayed basis, such as difficulty in obtaining records and the fact that, as here, key witnesses may be deceased. The Court, however, was unpersuaded. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, held that the Copyright Act's bar on lawsuits initiated more than three years after a claim accrued did not bar Petrella's lawsuit because, in this instance, there was ongoing copyright infringement and Petrella only sought damages for the three years preceding the filing of her lawsuit. The Court explained that the concept of laches originally served as a guide when no statute of limitations controlled, but could not be invoked as a rule for interpreting a statutory prescription established by Congress. Put simply, laches does not trump the statute of limitations protections that the Copyright Act provides for copyright owners whose works are infringed on an ongoing basis, so long as the owners only seek relief for acts of infringement occurring during the limitations period.

In addressing MGM's claim that an open-ended period to file copyright claims makes it difficult for companies to make future business decisions, Justice Ginsburg emphasized that the "'sue soon or forever hold your peace' approach" advocated by MGM is imprudent because it would force copyright owners to initiate infringement litigation at a time when the value of the copyrighted work was not being undercut or there was no detrimental effect on the original work. Instead, Justice Ginsburg explained that the three-year limitations period "allows a copyright owner to defer suit until she can estimate whether litigation is worth the candle. She will miss out on damages for periods prior to the three-year look-back, but her right to prospective injunctive relief should, in most cases, remain unaltered." The Court observed that allowing Petrella's lawsuit to go forward would put at risk "only a fraction" of the income that MGM earned during that three-year period and would work no unjust hardship on consumers who have purchased copies of Raging Bull. To the extent key witnesses no longer are available, the Court noted that the plaintiffs would be affected equally because they have the burden of proving infringement.

Another equitable "out" was provided, however, by the Court's observation that where a copyright owner intentionally engages in misleading representations concerning his or her abstention from suit, and an alleged infringer detrimentally relies on such deception and would be harmed, reasonable reliance on such copyright owner's past actions could give rise to an estoppel defense. Unlike laches, estoppel does not undermine the Copyright Act's statute of limitations because it rests on misleading acts or omissions. Perhaps anticipating this issue being raised on remand, Justice Ginsburg noted that "Petrella notified MGM of her copyright claims before MGM invested millions of dollars in creating a new edition of Raging Bull" and that "[t]he circumstances here may or may not (we need not decide) warrant limiting relief at the remedial stage."

The decision only addresses the narrow, procedural issue of whether the Copyright Act's statute of limitations for ongoing infringement precludes the assertion of laches. On remand, Petrella must prove her case on the merits. While Petrella is now able to seek damages back to 2006, Justice Ginsburg indicated that laches may come back into play before the district court, where Petrella's delay in commencing action may properly be taken into account at the remedial stage in determining damages and the scope of any appropriate injunctive relief.

Lastly, all is not lost for a company that must defend against a "delayed" claim of continuing copyright infringement. Laches may still play into the remedial stage of an action. and, as the Court pointed out, a defendant may retain any "investment shown to be attributable to its own enterprise, as distinct from the value created by the infringed work."

In a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, Justice Breyer argued that the majority's opinion undercut basic principles of fairness and could encourage the type of gamesmanship resulting from a claimant sitting back for years until the economics of the exploitation of a copyrighted work make the timing of suit more valuable.

The decision can be accessed here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/12-1315_ook3.pdf

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 20, 2014 6:24 PM.

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