I always get a kick out of copyright cases involving famous movies. If the dispute is over the content of the script, you get an always amusing legalese summary of the plot of the movie. Other disputes require a bit analysis and explanation.
Perella v. MGM involves a dispute over who owns the copyright to the famous Martin Scorsese movie Raging Bull. The movie follows the life and career of boxer Jake LaMotta, as portrayed by Robert DeNiro. DeNiro ended up getting the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of LaMotta, and the movie is (rightfully in my opinion) regarded as a classic. A man named Frank Perella wrote the screenplay for the movie, but died in 1981. His daughter, Paula, asserts that the copyright fell to Frank Perella’s heirs after he died. She claims that MGM and Fox owe her damages for infringement as a result.
Originally, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August 2012 that Paula Perella (who I will just refer to as Perella from now on) simply brought the case too late. Normally, the Copyright Act has a 3 year statute of limitation (the period of time where someone can bring a case) for each act of infringement. This has some interesting effects on copyright, since just making a work available can sometimes be infringement. All the party has to do is sell a work without the permission of the proper owner. As a result, MGM would remain liable for infringement as long as they sold copies of Raging Bull to the public if they never acquired permission from the actual rights holder. That means that, in this case, a movie like Raging Bull would have to be commercially unavailable before we start counting down the 3 year statute of limitations.
MGM made an interesting argument to try to get around that issue. MGM and Fox argued for the defense of laches, which allows a judge to bar a case if they find that the plaintiff took an unreasonably long time to bring up the issue. Laches is normally submitted as a basic fairness argument (kind of, “they took so long we didn’t even know it was an issue” line of reasoning). In this case, the delay was rather substantial; Perella waited 18 years before filing a law suit against MGM. To complicate matters, there’s a split in the federal circuits over whether this kind of defense can be used in copyright cases at all. Due to the split, the Supreme Court decided to hear the case.
Perella rightfully names a number of concerns in her writ. In addition to forum shopping concerns generated by a split (where plaintiffs look for the most favorable district), laches brings up a concern that judges can more or less overrule federal law through non-statutory means. That brings up a host of separation of powers concerns that certain justices will likely view unkindly. Many judges on the circuits rejecting the laches defense in a copyright case also enumerate those concerns.
I also find the issue interesting for another reason: the potentially indefinite statute of limitations for copyrighted works. The 3 year statute of limitations runs from when the plaintiff discovers or reasonable could have discovered the infringement. What makes the statute of limitations a moot point in most of these cases is that each act of infringement gives rise to a distinct new harm (Stone v. Williams, 970 F.2d 1043, 1049 (2d Cir. 1992)). In other words, showing a work or making a copy of that work potentially starts the 3 year countdown all over again. In this particular case, there is an 18 year gap between the initial infringement (the making and screening of Raging Bull) and the start of the case in 2009. Part of the purpose of statute of limitations is to force plaintiffs to make timely complaints. Having the statute of limitations period continue indefinitely seems to defeat that purpose entirely.
It is interesting that the Supreme Court opted to take this case in the first place. The Court rarely hears copyright cases, though resolving a split in the circuits might be significant enough to warrant bringing this case before the justices. I’m curious to see how they rule on this one.