'Raging Bull' Fight to Hit Supreme Court

Raging Bull Still De Niro Pesci - H 2014
Courtesy of Everett Collection

As TV broadcasters prepare to square off against streaming service Aereo at the U.S. Supreme Court, another Hollywood case quietly is headed there much sooner. On Jan. 21, the court will review an important dispute over Raging Bull, the 1980 classic with Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta.

Paula Petrella's father wrote a screenplay and book that became part of the basis for the Martin Scorsese film. She believes rights to Raging Bull's underlying material have reverted to her father's heirs and that MGM and Fox owe her millions of dollars for committing copyright infringement with continued distribution of the film.

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Petrella was young when Scorsese picked up the project. She filmed her father, Peter Savage, and LaMotta teaching De Niro how to box. When the film came out, she says her father squirmed. "I sat next to him at the NYC premiere, and he was surprised and upset at all the curse words in the film," says Petrella. "I think it embarrassed him in front of his teenage daughter."

Her dad died in 1981, and about a decade later, Petrella read in The Hollywood Reporter about a Supreme Court ruling involving Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. The issues were similar: Because her dad died before the end of the original copyright term, Petrella thought she too might own renewal rights and derivatives of her father's work. Petrella, who attended NYU film school (where Scorsese also graduated), spent 18 years shuffling through attorneys before suing MGM and Fox in 2009.

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By that time, MGM claimed her suit had come too late. Lower courts have agreed that her claims were barred by the defense of laches, which penalizes plaintiffs for an unreasonable delay in pursuing a right or claim. Now Petrella wants the high court to intervene. Appellate circuits around the nation haven't been uniform in the application of laches, and Petrella's attorney Stephanos Bibas believes that courts should instead lean upon the statute of limitations protocol in the Copyright Act.

If she wins, MGM and Fox could lose rights to the film. (The case would then go back to a trial court and Petrella would need to demonstrate that Scorsese's film was substantially similar to her father's work. MGM has denied this.)

But there are larger issues at play.

In an amicus brief in support of MGM, the MPAA points out why studios would want plaintiffs to sue right away instead of waiting. According to the trade association, "Studios invest significant financial and creative resources in preserving, re-mastering, and converting movies to new formats to keep up with advances in technology and in distributing movies through evolving channels such as cable television and third party vendors like Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon -- all in reliance on the original licenses and assignments and on the passage of years or decades without copyright suit."

The California Society of Entertainment Lawyers is backing Petrella in an effort to strengthen authors' rights. They say that the 9th Circuit -- Hollywood's backyard -- has been "hostile" to copyright plaintiffs. Others backing Petrella point out that as the copyright term has gotten lengthier, the only way to preserve authors' rights on the back end against studios is to allow them wide passage to lawsuits.

The dispute has grown so intriguing that last Friday, the Obama administration (via the U.S. Solicitor General) was granted permission to participate in oral arguments.

Petrella won't say what her plans are for Raging Bull should she prevail, but the woman who once authored a book on marathon preparation will be in attendance at the Supreme Court after exploring her rights for more than two decades. "At first, my case was grounded in preserving my father's legacy," says Petrella. "Now it has grown to encompass a much broader issue. I don't feel I'm fighting for just my own family anymore."

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