Supreme Court finds for 'Raging Bull' heir

The Supreme Court reaffirmed Monday the power of parties to bring copyright infringement lawsuits years after alleged violations began in a case over rights to the iconic film "Raging Bull."

The 6-3 decision came on Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which centers on a years-old legal battle between MGM and the daughter of Frank Petrella, who wrote the screenplay about boxer Jake LaMotta that later became the basis for the 1980 Martin Scorcese-Robert De Niro classic


The elder Petrella died soon after the film’s release, and his daughter and heir, Paula Petrella, renewed his copyright in 1991. She sued in 2009, alleging MGM’s exploitation of the film violated its terms.

Because of a statute of limitations, Petrella’s claim only involved damages incurred over the three years before her lawsuit was filed.

But MGM rejected the claim, citing the 18 years between the renewal of the copyright and the filing of the lawsuit. Specifically, the firm asserted “laches,” the term for a unreasonable delay in litigation.

Two lower courts agreed, blocking Petrella’s lawsuit.

The high court disagreed, in a majority opinion penned by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan.

“In sum, the courts below erred in treating laches as a complete bar to Petrella’s copyright infringement suit,” Ginsburg wrote. “If the rule were, as MGM urges, ‘sue soon, or forever hold your peace,’ copyright owners would have to mount a federal case fast to stop seemingly innocuous infringements, lest those infringements eventually grow in magnitude.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the dissent, which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The minority opinion argues in favor of the MGM’s laches assertion.

"Yet tellingly, the dissent has come up with no case in which this Court has approved the application of laches to bar a claim for damages brought within the time allowed by a federal statute of limitations,” wrote Ginsburg.