Clinic Students File Brief for Former Copyright Register in Supreme Court Raging Bull Case

On Thursday, September 21, 2013, students at the Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Law Clinic of the Washington College of Law filed an amicus brief in the pending Supreme Court case Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., involving the 1980 Martin Scorsese film Raging Bull. The Oscar winning film chronicles the life of retired boxing champion Jake LaMotta, played by Robert De Niro.

Student attorneys Deborah Goldman, Ed Lang, Alexis Patterson, Benjamin Penn, and Ashley Yull prepared the brief on behalf of Ralph Oman, a professor at George Washington University Law School who was United States Register of Copyrights, the chief government official charged with administering national copyright law, from 1985 through 1993.  Mr. Oman’s experiences shaped his interest in the Petrella case. In particular, he had insight into the Congressional intent behind the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976, based in part on his involvement in negotiating and drafting the Copyright Act when he served as Chief Minority Counsel on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights.

The case, which will be argued on January 21, 2014, centers on the question of whether laches is available to bar a copyright infringement suit that is timely under the three-year statute of limitations set forth in the Copyright Act.  Ms. Petrella alleges that the film, Raging Bull was based on a 1963 screenplay that her father co-wrote and subsequently registered with the United States Copyright Office.  In 1991, following her father’s death, Ms. Petrella renewed the copyright in the screenplay in the name of his heirs and thereafter became the sole owner of the copyright.  In Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207 (1990), the Supreme Court concluded that an author’s rights in a copyrighted work would pass to the author’s heirs, free and clear of any assignment of rights that occurred during the author’s lifetime, if the author died within the original twenty-eight year term of the copyright.  Thus, the heirs of Ms. Petrella’s father were able to obtain the rights to the screenplay because her father’s rights in the original work reverted to his heirs—free and clear of any prior assignments—when he died in 1981, within the term of the original copyright.

Ms. Petrella claims that the continued exploitation of the film without her consent, after becoming the sole holder of the rights in the screenplay on which she claims the film was based, violated her rights as a copyright holder.  In 2009, Ms. Petrella filed suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California seeking damages for infringement that had occurred within the three years prior to the suit, pursuant to the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations.  The film was originally released in 1980, but the film continued to enjoy commercial success in the years leading up to the suit.  For example, Ms. Petrella’s claim included damages from the 2007 release of the Raging Bull Special Edition Two-Disc DVD “Sports Gift Set” and the 2009 release of the film on Blu-Ray.

Although Ms. Petrella’s suit was filed within the bounds of the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations, the District Court held that the non-statutory defense of laches barred the suit.  Laches is an equitable defense whereby a claim is dismissed based on an unreasonable delay in bringing suit that prejudiced the other party.  On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling that laches barred Ms. Petrella’s suit.  On October 1, 2013, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide whether, under the Copyright Act, laches is available to bar an otherwise timely suit.

Mr. Oman wrote in support of Ms. Petrella and expressed concerns that the lower court’s decision would have negative implications for copyright law that reached far beyond the facts in this case.  The amicus brief argues that the application of laches where a clearly defined statute of limitations exists, such as the three-year statute of limitations set forth in the Copyright Act, contravenes the intent of Congress and unduly penalizes copyright owners, particularly small rightsholders such as Ms. Petrella, who have complied with all of the requirements set forth in the Copyright Act and who Congress and the United States Copyright Office have taken affirmative steps to protect.  Furthermore, the amicus brief argues that the application of laches will undermine achievement of the societal benefits that Congress envisioned when passing the Copyright Act.

The Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Law Clinic students were excited to have an opportunity to broaden their understanding of copyright law and learn from Mr. Oman’s deep experience in the field while providing information to the Supreme Court regarding the broad implications of the outcome of the case.

About Brandon Butler

Practitioner-in-Residence at the Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Clinic.
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