Petrella's 2009 lawsuit limited her claim to damages three years before and after the date of her suit, i.e. only any earnings after 2006 and until 2012. Both the federal District Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the studio against Petrella's claim: essentially, that the studio could invoke the doctrine of laches in arguing that the daughter had waited too long to file suit — laches refers to an unreasonable delay that are unfair to the defendant. But Petrella's suit only asked for damages within the statute of limitations of three years under law, for what she argued was a continued infringement on the copyright. Acknowledging that she couldn't ask for anything outside of the limitations, Petrella sued for a couple slices of the entire pie of MGM's use of Raging Bull.
The lawsuit itself was the result of decades of back and forth between MGM and Petrella. In 1991, Paula Petrella renewed the copyright on one of her late father's works — the 1963 script that served as an early draft of what became Raging Bull. In 1998, she informed the studio of her renewal, and told them that any derivative work of that screenplay, like Raging Bull, infringed on her copyright. MGM denied this this was so. Then, Petrella finally filed a lawsuit against the studio seeking monetary and injunctive relief in 2009. Although MGM's invocation of laches worked twice at the federal level, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her opinion that the application of them here was essentially unprecedented for the Supreme Court. Because the copyright laws already have a statute of limitations built into them, laches shouldn't have to apply:
The expansive role for laches MGM envisions careens away from understandings, past and present, of the essentially gap-filling, not legislation-overriding, office of laches. Nothing in this Court’s precedent suggests a doctrine of such sweep. Quite the contrary, we have never applied laches to bar in their entirety claims for discrete wrongs occurring within a federally prescribed limitations period. Inviting individual judges to set a time limit other than the one Congress prescribed, we note, would tug against the uniformity Congress sought to achieve.
Ginsburg added that "If the rule were, as MGM urges, 'sue soon, or forever hold your peace,' copyright owners would have to mount a federal case fast to stop seemingly innocuous infringements, lest those infringements eventually grow in magnitude." Now that the suit can go forward, however, the Supreme Court noted that the lower court would be able to take account of that delay when considering the case. A dismissal on the grounds of that delay, however, was "erroneous."
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the dissent, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy. The full opinion is here.