SCOTUS: ‘Raging Bull’ Copyright Suit Can Go Forward

May 23, 2014

CopyrightWhen a plaintiff suspects that his or her copyright has been infringed upon, does he or she have to take action immediately, or can he or she wait until the time is more, shall we say, advantageous?

That was one of the questions raised by Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc (134 S.Ct. 896 (2014)). That case concerned a lawsuit brought by a woman whose deceased father alleged a 1963 screenplay he wrote was unlawfully used as the basis for “Raging Bull,” the 1980 Martin Scorsese boxing drama.

The daughter’s argument is that she waited to file the lawsuit until 2010 because she needed to determine whether “Raging Bull,” the allegedly infringing material, had become profitable enough to make a lawsuit worthwhile.

MGM countered that the lawsuit should not be allowed to go forward because “key evidence” pertaining to a 50-year-old screenplay had disappeared with time and important witnesses died.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided that the daughter could continue with her lawsuit. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it made sense that a plaintiff would wait to see if a lawsuit was worthwhile. Several intellectual property lawyers, however, said this decision doesn’t reward promptness; instead, it encourages a kind of vulture-like claim-ripening. At least one lawyer told Reuters Legal he sees this as opening “floodgates” of litigation (while another said he wasn’t so sure it would).

I understand that a plaintiff should be allowed a certain amount of time to determine whether a lawsuit is financially worthwhile, but it’s odd to me that “Raging Bull” was the artwork used to reach that conclusion. The film was a box-office success when it came out and earned Robert De Niro a Best Actor Academy Award for his role as self-destructive boxer Jake LaMotta. It has since gone on to become a modern classic, lauded by influential critics like Roger Ebert as one of the best movies of the 1980s and included in the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies.

Considering that “Raging Bull” was a hit even at first, and has only increased in statute and profitability over time, it does seem that plaintiffs here would have much reason to sit on their hands.