The plaintiff's father had collaborated with the legendary boxer Jake LaMotta on a book and several screenplays which were the basis for the Oscar-winning movie. When the plaintiff's father died in 1981 the copyrights were inherited by his daughter. His daughter sued MGM in 2009 seeking royalties from continuing commercial use of the film. First, a Federal judge had held that she had waited too long because she had been aware of the potential to file a lawsuit as early as 1991. Then,the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, relying on the studio's argument that the plaintiff's delay of nearly two decades in bringing the case was unreasonable. Now, however, the Supreme Court has reversed and is providing plaintiff with the opportunity to continue her copyright infringement lawsuit.
For a long time, film and television studios and major record companies have relied on the legal doctrine of unreasonable delay to prevent relatives, estates, and other claimants from bringing copyright claims years or even decades after the products had been released. The statute of limitations under US copyright law requires that lawsuits must be commenced within three years of an infringing act and every new release of a product and the ongoing exploitation of a copyright essentially resets the three year clock for copyright purposes. In other words, if a plaintiff sued, even after decades, they would only be entitled to damages going back three years (although they could possibly secure a share of income going forward into the future). However, many cases were dismissed under other legal arguments, such as laches, which would permit a Court to dismiss a case brought too many years after the original infringing act (which, in effect, would nullify the three year rolling statute of limitations).
Without getting into all of the nitty gritty details of the decision, what matters is that those who, for whatever reason, might have been unable (or unaware of their right) to commence a claim for their share of copyright income now have a foot in the door. The rolling three-year copyright protection is fair to artists, authors and other creators of copyrights, and gives them incentive to create their works and the right to fight for a fair share of the income derived from the use and exploitation thereof.