Appeals Court Rejects Bid to Rip 'Raging Bull' Rights Away From MGM

Raging Bull Film Still - P 2012

Raging Bull Film Still - P 2012

MGM has emerged victorious in a ruling on Wednesday at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that confirms the studio's hold over the rights to Raging Bull.

The challenge was brought by Paula Petrella, the daughter of Frank Petrella (aka Peter Savage), who in 1963 wrote a screenplay (and other later works) about former boxing champion Jake LaMotta, his childhood friend. Petrella has asserted that because her father died in 1981, before the original term of the copyright grant expired, that rights to Raging Bull, purportedly based on the old work, reverted to the heirs.

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Unfortunately, she waited until 2009 to bring a lawsuit, which also claimed $1 million in copyright infringement damages on the part of MGM and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. On Wednesday, the appellate circuit agreed with a lower court judge in ruling that Petrella's lawsuit represented too long a wait in bringing claims.

As a result, MGM won't have to worry about its hold on Raging Bull. Nor anything else that might ruin its enjoyment of a film that earned Robert De Niro an Oscar win as best actor and Martin Scorsese a nomination for best director when it came out in 1980. The decision follows on the heels of MGM's settling of a separate lawsuit with LaMotta where the ex-boxer claimed the right to make a Raging Bull sequel but agreed to change his new film's title.

MGM was put on notice about potential claims from Petrella over Raging Bull since the mid-1990s.

Earlier this year, at the oral hearing at the 9th Circuit, Petrella's attorney said the delay shouldn't matter and promised that there would be plenty of witnesses at the trial, including Scorsese, De Niro, co-screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin and LaMotta's brother.

Petrella said that money issues, family health problems and fear of retaliation are what caused her to delay bringing the case.

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"These explanations are unsupported by evidence other than Petrella’s own declaration, and in any event, they are insufficient to demonstrate that the filing delay was reasonable," writes Judge Raymond C. Fisher in a unanimous decision at the 9th Circuit.

The judge goes onto to say that even if Petrella couldn't afford the lawsuit, it didn't offer a valid excuse for the delay. Further, there might be financial motivation for what took so long.

"The evidence suggests the true cause of Petrella’s delay was, as she admits, that 'the film hadn’t made more' during this time period. A delay 'to determine whether the scope of proposed infringement will justify the cost of litigation' may be reasonable; but delay for the purpose of capitalizing 'on the value of the alleged infringer’s labor, by determining whether the infringing conduct will be profitable' is not."

The ruling also brings a curious concurring opinion by 9th Circuit judge William A. Fletcher, who agrees with the decision for the most part, but raises a red flag over the issue of laches (which bars plaintiffs from pursuing claims when an unreasonable delay causes prejudices for the other party). Fletcher calls the 9th Circuit "the most hostile to copyright owners of all the circuits" and wants his colleagues to adopt rules that make it easier to fight copyright infringers.

Here is the ruling on Wednesday.

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