Supreme Court justices on Tuesday hearing a copyright appeals claim against Martin Scorsese‘s 1980 Oscar-winning film “Raging Bull,” questioned the potential effects of allowing such a claim years after a movie is made or a copyrighted work is issued.
Paula Petrella, whose father Frank Petrella wrote Jake LaMotta‘s autobiography and contributed to a first draft of the screenplay in 1963, is seeking at least $1 million in damages from MGM and 20th Century Fox.
Stephanos Bibas, an attorney for Petrella, told the court that any Congressional action altered the bar against filing copyright claims years later. The attorney also argued that courts have the leeway to examine specific factual situations.
Petrella contends that as heir to her father, she won the right to pursue the claim after her father died in 1981 before his 28-year copyright on the script ran out. Her lawsuit, filed in 2009, seeks damages for for the three years before and after her suit was filed and an injunction to halt further distribution of the film, until a financial agreement can be worked out.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed her case in 2012 as being filed too late.
Now the Supreme Court has to consider the timing of Petrella’s filing and whether Congress, in adding a provision to copyright law setting a three-year statute of limitations on copyright cases, changed the “laches” that traditionally have limited late claims. The provision opens the door to cases filed years later as long as the cases target continuing earnings and not earnings from years before.
Bibas argued the law did make a change, replacing the judicial “laches” policy with a new Congressionally mandated standard.
“Laches is a gap filler, but Congress filled with gap with a bright line statute of limitations,” Bibas told the judges.
He also argued that a right to injunction would prevent the Petrella suit from ongoing violations.
Several judges questioned that position.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted the federal government’s position that a compulsory license fee might be warranted for Petrella, but not the right to seek an injunction.
Meanwhile, Justice Antonin Scalia said a ruling in favor of Petrella would rewrite the law in ways that could change the economics of copyrights.
“You’re talking about inducing, or causing at least, people who — who proceeded in good faith on the assumption that 20 years have gone by. Nobody — nobody has questioned our doing it. They invested substantial amounts of money, and then when that money starts to pay off, you file suit and — and you get three years’ worth of — of their profits,” he said.
Mark A. Perry, a lawyer for the studios, told the justices the Congressional action doesn’t preclude the “laches” standard.
He also argued that Petrella was unfairly trying to profit from the studios investment in the 25th year anniversary of the movie by choosing to target profits after advertising spending wouldn’t be deducted from profits.
Pamela Chelin contributed to this story.