Law School Case Brief
Petrella v. MGM - 572 U.S. 663, 134 S. Ct. 1962 (2014)
It is widely recognized that the separate-accrual rule attends the copyright statute of limitations. Under that rule, when a defendant commits successive violations, the statute of limitations runs separately from each violation. Each time an infringing work is reproduced or distributed, the infringer commits a new wrong. Each wrong gives rise to a discrete claim that accrues at the time the wrong occurs. In short, each infringing act starts a new limitations period.
The allegedly infringing work in this case is the critically acclaimed motion picture Raging Bull, based on the life of boxing champion Jake LaMotta. After retiring from the ring, LaMotta worked with his longtime friend, Frank Petrella, to tell the story of the boxer’s career. Their venture resulted in three copyrighted works: two screenplays, one registered in 1963, the other in 1973, and a book, registered in 1970. This case centers on the screenplay registered in 1963. In 1976, the pair assigned their rights and renewal rights, which were later acquired by respondent United Artists Corporation, a subsidiary of respondent Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. (collectively, MGM). In 1980, MGM released, and registered a copyright in, the film Raging Bull, and it continues to market the film today. Frank Petrella died during the initial copyright term, so renewal rights reverted to his heirs. Plaintiff below, petitioner here, Paula Petrella (Petrella), his daughter, renewed the 1963 copyright in 1991, becoming its sole owner. Seven years later, she advised MGM that its exploitation of Raging Bull violated her copyright and threatened suit. Some nine years later, on January 6, 2009, she filed an infringement suit, seeking monetary and injunctive relief limited to acts of infringement occurring on or after January 6, 2006. Invoking the equitable doctrine of laches, MGM moved for summary judgment. Petrella's 18-year delay in filing suit, MGM argued, was unreasonable and prejudicial to MGM. The District Court granted MGM's motion, holding that laches barred Petrella's complaint. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.
Did the equitable defense of laches bar relief on the heir's pursuit of legal remedies under 17 U.S.C.S. § 504(b) brought within 17 U.S.C.S. § 507(b)’s three-year limitations period?
The lower court erred in failing to recognize that § 507(b) took account of delay by limiting recovery for infringement in earlier years and allowing a defendant to prove and offset deductible expenses. The instant case did not present extraordinary circumstances that would have justified applying laches as a complete bar to the heir's claims where she had notified the movie studio of her copyright claims before it invested millions of dollars in creating a new edition of the movie, and the equitable relief sought would not have resulted in total destruction of the film.
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