“Raging Bull” Decision Highlights Importance of ADR in Entertainment Disputes
“Raging Bull” is a classic 1980 motion picture directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta. In the case of Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., the United States Supreme Court recently ruled that MGM can be sued for copyright infringement more than three decades after releasing the movie. The case was filed by Paula Petrella, the daughter of Frank Petrella, who co-wrote and sold his rights to the screenplay used to make the movie. Mr. Petrella died in 1981, and his rights transferred to his daughter, who claims that MGM needed her permission to continue to exploit the screenplay.
Although Ms. Petrella initially contacted MGM in the 1990s, she did not bring suit until 2009. The district court granted summary judgment for MGM, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed on the grounds that Ms. Petrella’s claims are barred by the equitable doctrine of laches, which bars a plaintiff’s recovery due to an undue delay in seeking relief. However, like all copyright infringement claims, Ms. Petrella’s claim is subject to a three-year statute of limitations. Therefore, Ms. Petrella was seeking damages only for the three years prior to the date she filed suit, attempting to benefit from DVD sales associated with a 25th anniversary edition.
The Court reversed and held that “in face of a statute of limitations enacted by Congress, laches cannot be invoked to bar legal relief.” In other words, a copyright owner can wait idly for years, or even decades, and still file suit to collect damages for the three years prior to the filing of the suit. This decision has far-reaching implications. Given new revenue sources associated with constantly evolving forms of distributing content, content owners who may have abandoned any hope of recovery may now file suit. Also, people who believe (rightly or wrongly) that their works of art have been infringed, but dismissed any hope or expectation of collecting damages due to lapse of time, are now likely to sue. Consequently, the Petrella decision could lead to a floodgate of potential litigation.
Even before the Supreme Court’s decision in Petrella, intellectual property / entertainment matters were ideally suited for mediation and other forms of ADR. The importance of secrecy and privacy, the need for expertise and the flexibility that ADR offers are three reasons why intellectual property and entertainment practitioners should use ADR as much as possible. The additional number of claims and the nature of the claims likely to result from the Petrella decision further reinforce the importance of ADR for entertainment matters.
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