After Supreme Court, MGM Settles 'Raging Bull' Rights Dispute

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

Raging Bull Still De Niro Pesci - H 2014

The U.S. Supreme Court might have revived a long-running dispute over rights to Martin Scorsese's classic film Raging Bull, but the parties involved in the battle have figured out a way to hang up their gloves. On Friday, a federal judge was informed that a settlement had been reached.

Paula Petrella, whose father, Frank Petrella, wrote works that became the basis of the 1980 film starring Robert De Niro as real-life boxer Jake LaMotta, sued MGM and 20th Century Fox for copyright infringement over the continued distribution of the motion picture.

Petrella asserted rights to her father's works — including a 1963 screenplay and 1976 book about LaMotta — and Raging Bull as well.

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She knew about her potential claims since the early 1990s, when the Supreme Court heard a dispute involving Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. Under the law, for works created before 1978, when an author dies before the expiration of the original term, rights during the renewal term automatically vests with the author’s heirs. In the case involving Rear Window, the high court established the so-called "Abend Rule," dealing with the continued distribution of a derivative work like Hitchcock's movie, which was based on an earlier short story.

Petrella's father died in 1981, so she argued that the Scorsese film based on her father's works was hers. But it wasn't until 2009 that she brought a lawsuit. Until then, though she had put MGM on notice, she had trouble lining up her attorneys.

In defense, MGM and Fox asserted what's known as "laches" — or an unreasonable delay in bringing a claim — and were successful in beating Petrella on summary judgment. That is, until the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case and, in a 6-3 majority opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, decided in January 2014 that laches can't be invoked to preclude damages claims brought within the applicable three-year statute of limitations.

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Still, this didn't mean that Petrella had won. It merely meant the bout would go another few rounds.

Back at a district court, MGM argued that her father's 1976 agreement had conveyed all rights, and failing that, her copyright interest in the screenplay was subject to "only narrow protection." If the case moved any further, a judge might have had to explore the differences and similarities between Scorsese's and Petrella's works, along with what really was protected. According to MGM, such elements as LaMotta’s most famous fights, his divorce and his postretirement incarceration are "historical facts or unprotectable scenes-a-faire."

Before it got there, though, the two sides managed to work out their differences. Glen Kulik, attorney for Petrella, confirmed a settlement but wouldn't go into detail because of agreed-upon confidentiality. Jonathan Zavin, attorney for the defendants, didn't respond to a request for comment.

The dispute is over, but Petrella's case still figures to be an important one going forward. There have already been copyright cases that have been given openings thanks to what the Supreme Court decided in this case. There figures to be many more to come.

Twitter: @eriqgardner