Friday, July 12, 2013

Copyright Law - Ninth Circuit: Was Raging Bull Asleep At the Wheel? An Unusual Laches Case

Copyright Infringement, Unjust Enrichment, Laches, Equitable Estoppel, Motion for Summary Judgment, Rule 11 Sanctions, Attorneys Fees

Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 695 F.3d 946 (Ninth Circuit August 29, 2012).  Petrella owns renewal copyright in Raging Bull book and two screenplays.    Her father wrote the book and screenplays and died in 1981.  She filed a renewal application in 1991.  In 1998 her attorney wrote to defendants claiming that Raging Bull was an infringement of her copyright.  An exchange of letters was had, ending in 2000.   Petrella filed this action in 2009.  The district court granted summary judgment on the equitable defense of laches.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed.   The Ninth Circuit opined that laches bars a copyright owner’s claim where a plaintiff, with full knowledge of the facts, acquiesces in a transaction and sleeps upon his rights.  A defendant must prove (1) the plaintiff delayed in initiating the lawsuit; (2) delay was unreasonable; and (3) the delay resulted in prejudice.   Plaintiff claimed that she had delayed for personal reasons, together with the fact that the film had not made any money.  The Ninth Circuit analyzed two types of prejudice: expectations-based prejudice and evidentiary prejudice.  The Ninth Circuit focused on the many investments that the producers continued to make in Raging Bull during the relevant time period and found that they had been prejudiced caused by Petrella’s delay.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of damages.  The opinion provoked a dissent that pointed out that the Ninth Circuit is the jurisdiction most hostile to copyright owners and out of synch with other jurisdictions.   The dissent reasoned that the majority opinion confounds the doctrine of equitable estoppel with laches and misuses the laches doctrine in a manner that is too broad and vague in a manner not intended by Congress.
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