MGM Swings for Knockout in 'Raging Bull' Lawsuit

The studio is up against Paula Petrella, whose father wrote a book that became the basis for Martin Scorsese's film.
Courtesy of Everett Collection

On Monday, MGM was back in the squared ring of a courtroom with Paula Petrella, whose father wrote works that partly became the basis for Martin Scorsese Raging Bull.

Petrella is suing MGM and 20th Century Fox over the continued distribution of the film, and while the defendants scored blows in the first round before the U.S. Supreme Court revived the case, she's still standing, being allowed to pursue copyright claims despite an 18-year delay in filing a lawsuit.

This time, MGM isn't attacking the delay, but rather what was represented by her father when he got $200,000 to sell film rights to his 1976 book about the boxer Jake LaMotta, played in the film by Robert De Niro.

Petrella's father not only wrote a book, but also two screenplays about LaMotta — one as early as 1963. The heiress controls the screenplays if not the book, and it's not factually clear whether the book was based on the screenplays (Petrella's position), or vice versa (MGM's). The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the scope of Petrella's copyright protection depends on this issue.

According to MGM, when Petrella's father and LaMotta sold rights to the book, they "repeatedly represented in writing that LaMotta’s autobiography was an original work of authorship."

MGM adds, "Lest there be any doubt as to the order of the works, in the 1976 agreement conveying rights in the works to Defendants’ predecessors, Plaintiff’s father and LaMotta then expressly represented and warranted that Plaintiff’s father’s 1963 screenplay was 'based on' LaMotta’s and Plaintiff’s father’s original book."

Petrella is arguing that this was an excusable mistake and didn't reflect the reality of a screenplay that appeared on the scene more than a decade before the book.

MGM responds that this is "revisionist history" and that she is "equitably estopped from rescinding her father’s representations to profit from her new theory."

If Petrella wins this point, it doesn't mean she automatically wins the lawsuit. She will also have to show that the film infringed on the expression in her father's screenplay. Since Raging Bull is a biopic based on a true story, there may be many elements not protected by copyright.

MGM argues such elements as LaMotta’s most famous fights, his divorce and his post-retirement incarceration are "historical facts or unprotectable scenes-a-faire." The studio says Petrella's copyright interest in the screenplays is subject to "only narrow protection" and that she will have to show that the screenplay and Raging Bull is "virtually identical."

Twitter: @eriqgardner