Fight Over Who Owns 'Raging Bull' Carried Up To Ninth Circuit Appeals Court

An author's heir argues that Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro could be witnesses in a case over whether rights to the film reverted to the owner of allegedly underlying material.

Paula Petrella, whose father authored work that became part of the basis for Raging Bull, is attempting to revive a lawsuit seeking ownership over the 1980 Martin Scorsese-directed classic. On Wednesday, her lawyers appeared before a three-judge appeals panel at the Ninth Circuit in an effort to show that she didn't wait to too long to bring her claims.

PHOTOS: Crazy Cases! 18 of Hollywood's Outrageous Entertainment Lawsuits

In 1963, Frank Petrella wrote a Raging Bull screenplay about former boxing champion Jake LaMotta, his childhood friend. Seven years later,  Petrella also co-authored LaMotta's autobiography.

Petrella passed away in 1981, a year after the film starring Robert De Niro in an Oscar-winning role came out. The film's screenplay was credited as being written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin based on a book by LaMotta and Peter Savage (Petrella's pseudonym).

Almost three decades later, Petrella's daughter filed a lawsuit, claiming that because her father died in 1981, before the original term of the copyright grant expired, that rights to Raging Bull reverted to the heirs. In the lawsuit, Petrella also claimed $1 million in damages from alleged copyright infringement on the part of MGM and 20th Century Fox, who have profited off of DVDs of the famous film.

PHOTOS: Martin Scorsese: Into the Past

At the district court level, California federal judge George Wu began to look into questions whether LaMotta's 1970 book was a derivative of the earlier 1963 screenplay, and signaled complicated factual issues over contributions, credits, who had rights to do what on the 1980 movie, and whether there was substantial similarity of protectable elements in the various works.

But the line of inquiry became moot as a result of Judge Wu's determination that Fox and MGM were entitled to summary judgement on their laches defense, which argued that by waiting two decades to bring the lawsuit, Patrella had exercised a lack of diligence and subjected the defendants to legal prejudice.

Last Wednesday, Petrella's attorney, Glen Kulik, appeared before the 9th Circuit in an effort to overrule this outcome. Kulik argued there would be plenty of witnesses at the trial, including Scorcese, De Niro, Schrader, Martin, and LaMotta's brother.

VIDEO: Hugo Trailer

MGM responded that the key witness, Jake LaMotta himself, wouldn't be available. The studio also said that the film was original based on historical fact, and that Patrella couldn't claim any copyright interest in it.


Twitter: @eriqgardner