Posted by Sequel on July 2, 2014
Topic: blogs, Copyrights
Tags: Copyright damages
After Raging Bull Ruling, Statute of Limitations is Meaningless in Copyright

In a bizarre ruling that effectively eliminates the very notion of a Statute of Limitations on Copyright infringement suits, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “Under the [Copyright] Act, each infringing act equates to a new wrong, thus triggering a new limitations period.”

That logic stretch enabled the Court to find in favor of a plaintiff who filed a suit 18 years after the first alleged infringement of a copyright. This despite the fact that the Copyright Act contains a clear and unequivocal three-year Statute of Limitations.

The case involved the famous MGM film “Raging Bull” directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro. The 1980 film was adapted from a 1963 screenplay by Frank Petrella, whose daughter Paula inherited the copyright when the screenwriter died in 1981. She renewed the copyright when it was due in 1991 and notified MGM. The film company continued to sell and distribute the film without permission from that point.

In 2009, Paula filed a copyright infringement suit against MGM. The first court to hear the case properly dismissed it because of the legal doctrine known as “laches” which says that a lawsuit must be filed in a timely manner. The Ninth Circuit upheld the dismissal on appeal.

But then the case landed at the Supreme Court. It ruled, first, that laches couldn’t be applied because it was only usable in cases where no statute of limitations had been enacted. In this case, Congress had enacted a three-year statute. So far, so good.

Then the Justices  drew the shocking conclusion that as long as any infringement occurs within the three-year period defined in the Act, the plaintiff cannot be barred by the passage of time from filing a claim. This is because the Court ruled that each act of infringement — in this case, each showing of the film, or each sale of a DVD or other format video — gives rise to a new action. As a result, Paula, even after waiting 18 years to file her suit, is entitled to her day in court as long as she files within three years of any infringing act.

Hopefully — and presumably — Congress will act at some point to amend the Act to make it clearer that the litigation statute of limitations is intended to prevent just this sort of lawsuit from arising.

Meanwhile, Paula can now resume her suit which will in all likelihood be quietly settled by MGM, whose lawyers are probably still stunned.

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