Supreme Court Vs. Raging Bull

In what will likely be a significantly more pugilistic than average oral argument, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to take on a case concerning Director Martin Scorsese’s 1980 boxing masterpiece “Raging Bull” (also one of Robert De Niro’s greatest performances). If (for some insane reason) you haven’t watched this classic, DO SO NOW.

But wait… Hold on – a 1980 movie?? Is the Court really that out of touch with popular culture?  Well, not exactly. In fact, that’s precisely the issue under dispute. According to the plaintiff, daughter of the late screenwriter Frank P. Petrella who (allegedly) collaborated with boxer Jake LaMotta on the original script and also wrote other related works (including one entitled “Raging Bull” on which the film’s script may have been partially based), her father’s intellectual property rights were violated by MGM when the studio (again, allegedly) relied on his work in violation of federal copyright law. Putting aside whether or not Ms. Petrella’s charges are true, she first faces a bigger problem and that’s what gets us to the impending Supreme Court argument: Ms. Petrella didn’t file her case until 2009 – 29 years after the alleged copyright violation occured.

Interestingly, under pure copyright law that’s not necessarily a problem. Although the statute of limitations for copyright infringement is three years, infringement is defined as the “last infringement.” Raging Bull has obviously been shown countless times (for profit) since 1980. Its popularity (and earnings) have steadily grown. Therefore, argues Ms. Petrella, suing in 2009 was entirely proper. Congress had passed a law (the Copyright Act) that expressly allowed her to wait as long she wanted – at least if infringements were continuing.

MGM, however, sees things a little differently. Invoking an ancient equitable theory stemming from British law (something called “the doctrine of Laches”), the studio asserts that Ms. Petrella allowed such an extreme amount of time to pass before suing (despite having been able to do so earlier) that it would just be fundamentally unfair to allow the lawsuit to proceed given the difficulty of defending a case in which principles are now deceased and much of the original evidence may no longer exist or be sufficiently verifiable.

Petrella counters that MGM’s argument violates a core Constitutional provision: the separation of powers. Because Congress has the exclusive authority to draft laws (including statutes of limitations), allowing the judiciary to overturn a fully constitutional and unambiguous law merely because MGM might face some sort of theoretical hardship would itself be an unconstitutional act.

MGM’s response to that? Courts invoke Laches all time and have done so for hundreds of years . . . If separation of powers is relevant, then surely this is one case where the Court – NOT Congress – can and must exercise its power in the interest of preserving MGM’s “pre-Constitutional” right to fair process.

The ultimate implications, of course, extend far beyond Raging Bull and will likely have a profound impact across multiple industries – particularly entertainment, pharmaceuticals and technology where copyright (and patent) suits are basic realities of doing business.

Whatever happens, you can be confident Scalia is looking forward to this one…

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