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'Raging Bull' Dispute Rages Past Appellate Rulings

Paula Petrella's lawsuit now heads back to the trial court

Raging Bull / Requiem for a Heavyweight

The next chapter in a very old legal fight over the Martin Scorsese-directed Raging Bull will be written soon enough, and on Friday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals provided a preamble of sorts.

Paula Petrella is suing MGM and 20th Century Fox for alleged copyright infringement from the continued distribution of the film. Her father, Frank Petrella, wrote works that allegedly became the basis for the film about boxer Jake LaMotta. Her father passed away before the end of the original copyright term, and so the daughter has asserted dominion over renewal rights of her father's work along with alleged derivatives like the film.

Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower courts by declaring that Patrella's long delay in bringing a lawsuit shouldn't preclude her claims.

The dispute was handed back to the 9th Circuit but still wasn't guaranteed to go any further.

MGM argued that Petrella had only renewed her father's 1963 screenplay, not her father's 1973 screenplay nor her father's 1970 book. The defendants argued that the works were "virtually indistinguishable from one another," and further, that when her father licensed rights in 1976 to his book, that he represented in contract that the book was original. In other words, the studio believes that it has all the rights it needs locked up and should be granted summary judgment on that basis.

But MGM's license to use the content of the book is dependent on the scope of copyright protection in the book. And according to a new memorandum from the 9th Circuit, "In turn, the scope of copyright protection in the book depends on whether the 1963 screenplay was based on the book or vice versa."

If the 1963 screenplay is based on the book, or if the book is original, MGM likely wins the lawsuit. On the other hand, if the book is based on the 1963 screenplay, then MGM only has rights over new elements that were introduced by the book.

Since the publishing of the book followed the screenplay, there could be some presumption that the book was based on the screenplay, but even if so, Petrella figures to have significant hurdles before prevailing in the lawsuit.

First, MGM is arguing that she should be estopped from contradicting her father that the book was original. The 9th Circuit gives the district court the task of addressing this argument.  Second, MGM is arguing that the 1963 screenplay was written "in collaboration with Jake La Motta," and as such, is joint authorship. The 9th Circuit believes this is a disputed material fact, and as such, is not one that is going to be decided on summary judgment. Finally, Petrella is going to have to show that a juror can find the 1980 Scorsese movie to be substantially similar to the 1963 screenplay. The 9th Circuit only nods here by saying the district court should apply the appropriate test.

MGM does get a small victory. The appeals court notes, "Nothing in the Supreme Court opinion affects our holdings that Petrella’s claims for unjust enrichment and for an accounting are barred by laches, and that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendants’ motions for attorney’s fees and for sanctions."

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner