Posted: October 28th, 2013
By: John Hodnette *
On October 1st, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear an appeal of a copyright dispute arising from the popular classic film “Raging Bull.” Patrella v. MGM concerns the claim by Paula Patrella that the 1980s film starring Robert De Niro was based on a book and two screenplays created by her father, Frank P. Patrella, and the boxer Jake LaMotta. The claim is more than legitimate, given that the fact that the film was inspired by Jake LaMotta’s life is common knowledge, even appearing in headlines. However, it is not the copyright claim itself that is being appealed to the Supreme Court, but rather an issue of Civil Procedure: whether to apply the latches doctrine or the relevant statute of limitations.
The Latches Doctrine is a legal common law defense in an equitable action that “bars recovery by the plaintiff because of the plaintiff’s undue delay in seeking relief.” This doctrine is based on the idea that the courts should not aid those who take an inordinate amount of time to raise their claims. Elements include “knowledge of a claim, unreasonable delay, [and] neglect, which taken together hurt the opponent” because after a certain amount of time, an opponent reasonably does not expect a claim to be brought against them. It does not matter if the claim is legitimate, the doctrine can bar a claim that is made too late.
The Latches Doctrine is similar in nature to the concept of Statute of Limitations. A Statute of Limitations is a law that “restricts the time within which legal proceedings may be brought.” Under such a law, the government establishes a certain amount of time within which the claim may be brought in court. The policy reasons behind this are much the same as the latches doctrine: it is unfair to the defendant for his sleep to be broken by the constant fear of litigation, and it is inefficient for the courts to deal with cases where evidence may have long since deteriorated.
The main difference between statutes of limitation and the latches doctrine is the origin. Statutes of limitation are created by the legislatures, either state or federal, and codified in statutes; thus the “statute.” In contrast, the latches doctrine is a common law concept, meaning it is at the discretion of the judge and is not codified anywhere.
In Patrella v. MGM, the issue on appeal to the Supreme Court is whether to dismiss the copyright claim on the grounds that it was brought far too late by latches standards, even though the copyright statute of limitations allows for the “clock” to be reset with each copyright violation. For “Raging Bull,” this means that the statute of limitations has not yet run out, even though the film is over 30 years old.
The power of precedent makes this case so important. If the Supreme Court allows the case to be heard, despite the latches doctrine, it will open up the door for other heirs of copyright owners to sue for long-past infringements. If the Supreme Court rules for the latches doctrine, it will reinforce the idea that rights in our system may expire, even despite legislative intent to the contrary, if one sits on them too long.
Regardless of how the Court rules, we can all agree that “Raging Bull” is a classic that should be watched by each new generation.
* John Hodnette is a second year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a minor in Philosophy, from Auburn University. Upon graduation, he intends to practice in the Chicago area.