The case before the high court — brought by the daughter of one of Jake LaMotta’s friends and co-authors — isn’t about who owns the rights to the acclaimed story. Instead, it is a challenge to the way that lower courts dismissed Paula Petrella’s case against MGM. A district court and the 9th Circuit argued that she waited too long to bring the case — something called the doctrine of laches — but Petrella’s legal team argued that other circuits have rendered opposite judgments of whether such reasoning should apply.
The case has implications for entertainment because laches has been a way for studios to have certain claims of copyright ownership easily dismissed, particularly in the 9th Circuit which covers western states.
“If this laches defense is upheld, it is a very formidable defense that the studios would have to hoist if someone came out of the word work, so to speak,” said Jonathan B. Sokol, partner at Greenberg Glusker.
Petrella’s father, Frank “Peter” Petrella, worked in the early 60s and 70s on a book and two screenplays depicting LaMotta’s story, including projects called “The Raging Bull.” The elder Petrella died in 1981, but Paula Petrella in 1991 renewed the copyright to his 1963 screenplay. Yet she did not a copyright infringement claim against MGM until 2009. There is a three-year statute of limitations on copyright infringement claims, but lower courts dismissed the case, supporting the laches defense. At the heart of such a defense is the notion that a plaintiff can’t wait until a property starts making money — in this case, homevideo — to file a claim against an entity that has invested years of money and effort in exploiting it.
Petrella’s legal team, led by Stephanos Bibas, argued that the Supreme Court should hear the case because other circuit courts have concluded that a defense of laches cannot bar a copyright claim brought within the statute of limitations.
MGM had no comment, as did Petrella and her attorney, Bibas.