Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
The Copyright Act protects works published before 1978 for 28 years, renewable for up to 67 years, 17 U.S.C. 304(a). An author’s heirs inherit renewal rights. If an author who has assigned rights dies before the renewal period the assignee may continue to use the work only if the author’s successor transfers renewal rights to the assignee. The Act provides for injunctive relief and damages. Civil actions must be commenced within three years after the claim accrued-ordinarily when an infringing act occurred. Under the separate-accrual rule, each successive violation starts a new limitations period, but is actionable only within three years of its occurrence. The movie, Raging Bull, is based on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta, who, with Petrella, told his story in a screenplay copyrighted in 1963. In 1976 they assigned their rights and renewal rights to MGM. In 1980 MGM released, and registered a copyright in, Raging Bull. Petrella died during the initial copyright term, so renewal rights reverted to his daughter, who renewed the 1963 copyright in 1991. Seven years later, she advised MGM that it was violating her copyright. Nine years later she filed suit, seeking damages and injunctive relief for violations occurring after January 5, 2006. The district court dismissed, citing laches. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. Laches cannot bar a claim for damages brought within the three-year window. By permitting retrospective relief only three years back, the limitations period takes account of delay. Noting the “essentially gap-filling, not legislation-overriding,” nature of laches, the Court stated that it has never applied laches to entirely bar claims for discrete wrongs occurring within a federally prescribed limitations period. It is not incumbent on copyright owners to challenge every actionable infringement; there is nothing untoward about waiting to see whether a violation undercuts the value of the copyrighted work, has no effect, or even complements the work. The limitations period, with the separate-accrual rule, allows an owner to defer suit until she can estimate whether litigation is worth the effort. Because a plaintiff bears the burden of proof, evidence unavailability is as likely to affect plaintiffs as defendants. The Court noted that in some circumstances, the equitable defense of estoppel might limit remedies. Allowing this suit to proceed will put at risk only a fraction of what MGM has earned from Raging Bull and will work no unjust hardship on innocent third parties. Should Petrella prevail on the merits, the court may fashion a remedy taking account of the delay and MGM’s alleged reliance on that delay. View "Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc." on Justia Law