If there is one sentiment about Hollywood that just about everyone can agree upon it's that the film industry is a battlefield that pits artists, creators and authors against large production companies, oftentimes without much legal counsel as a buffer. As our California readers already know, without proper knowledge of intellectual property rights, a person could find it difficult to maintain creative control over their work, which can lead to contentious litigation down the road.
But as we will see in the following case, this can turn even more problematic when the original owner of the right passes away and it transfers to their heirs. This is exemplified by a case that recently went before the United States Supreme Court. It raises important questions about copyright law, the statute of limitations and how an heir should handle such a difficult situation in the limited time window that is given.
Some of our readers may have already heard about the case of Petrella v. MGM. But for those who haven't, the lawsuit was filed by Paula Petrella, the daughter of Frank Petralla whose works are believed to have inspired Martin Scorsese's film "Raging Bull." When she originally filed the lawsuit in 2009, she claimed that MGM's continued "exploitation" of the film infringed on copyrights regarding her father's works.
But it's not the grounds for her lawsuit that ultimately led it to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. The reason for this was because MGM argued that Petrella's claim was past the three-year statute of limitations. Lower courts agreed by enforcing the doctrine of laches, "which prohibits delayed lawsuits that have a prejudicial effect on defendants."
But the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, disagreed. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that a plaintiff may wait "to see whether an infringer's exploitation undercuts the value of the copyrighted work, has no effect on the original work, or even complements it." This does not mean that the plaintiff is actively delaying litigation, as MGM seemed to suggest in its argument against the lawsuit.
Though Petrella will still need to prove copyright infringement in future litigation, there is no longer the argument over whether she filed her lawsuit in a timely enough manner or not. She may also seek damages as far back as 2006 if she so wishes.
Source: The Hollywood Reporter, "Supreme Court Allows 'Raging Bull' Heiress to Sue MGM for Copyright Damages," Eriq Gardner, May 19, 2014