Supreme Court Will Hear 'Raging Bull' Dispute

Raging Bull Film Still - P 2012

Raging Bull Film Still - P 2012

More than three decades after Martin Scorsese directed Robert De Niro in the classic film Raging Bull, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider a dispute that could impact the ownership of former boxing champion Jake LaMotta's story.

On Tuesday, the high court announced that it would be reviewing a challenge made by Paula Petrella, whose father, Frank Petrella, wrote LaMotta's autobiography and an early screenplay in the 1960s.

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Petrella asserts that because her father died in 1981, before the original term of the copyright grant expired, rights to Raging Bull reverted to the heirs. In a lawsuit, Petrella also claimed $1 million in damages from alleged copyright infringement on the part of MGM and 20th Century Fox, who have profited from DVDs of the famous film. In August 2012, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed MGM a victory by saying that a lawsuit brought in 2009 was too late.

That will now be under review in a case that will be watched by artists fighting studios over rights to works.

According to Petrella's petition for a writ of certiorari, the question to be presented to the nine justices will be whether the defense of laches – meaning an unreasonable delay in pursuing a right or claim – can bar a civil copyright lawsuit within an express three-year statute of limitations. The petition notes that appellate circuits have split on the answer.

"Under our system of separation of powers, courts may not use non-statutory time limits to constrict express limitations periods enacted by Congress," argue Petrella's lawyers. "Laches requires a variable, fact-specific balancing of the equities, whereas the statute prescribes a predictable bright-line rule. The Ninth Circuit’s rule not only is legally erroneous but also threatens to breed forum shopping – the very evil Congress sought to prevent when it enacted a uniform statute of limitations."

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The case might also allow the Supreme Court to readdress issues that came up in 1990 when it heard a dispute involving Rear Window, which was being shown on television, prompting a lawsuit from the estate of literary agent Sheldon Abend, owner of  a short story that served as the basis for the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock movie. The Supreme Court established the "Abend Rule," addressing the continued distribution of a derivative work during the copyright renewal period of the underlying work. As a result of the 1990 ruling, Abend and MCA entered into settlement and licensing agreements with each other.

In the Petrella case, the father is said to have been "unable to appreciate the long-term impact of his work, as he passed away in 1981. Because he died during the original 28-year term of his copyrights in the book and screenplays, under Stewart v. Abend his renewal rights in the three works reverted to his heirs, including his daughter, petitioner Ms. Petrella."

But how soon Petrella had to file a lawsuit to assert her rights is under question. Beginning in the late 1990s, her reps began contacting MGM and objecting to the continued exploitation of Raging Bull. Petrella says she had problems with her attorneys and cites one conflict being a law firm who was also repping De Niro. That could have been one reason for her delay in bringing the lawsuit.

STORY: Fight Over Who Owns 'Raging Bull' Carried Up to Ninth Circuit Appeals Court

In its reply to Petrella's petition, MGM argued that the Ninth Circuit's ruling was correct. It argued that "Petitioner’s 18-year delay in bringing this action was egregious and entirely unjustifiable, and resulted in substantial (and unrebutted) prejudice to respondents."

Among the prejudices caused by the delay was the unavailability of witnesses who had passed away in the interim. At a hearing at the Ninth Circuit, and likely to be repeated at the Supreme Court, Petrella's attorney stated there would be plenty of witnesses at the trial, including Scorsese, De Niro, co-screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin and LaMotta's brother.

The dispute also drew an amicus brief from the California Society of Entertainment Lawyers, who spoke up for the needs of frustrated copyright plaintiffs accustomed to seeing claims of infringement being summarily dismissed. The group also blasted the "Ninth Circuit’s broader hostility to copyright plaintiffs – specifically, creators filing suit against conglomerates within the entertainment industry for violation of their intellectual property rights."

The Supreme Court has been shy about taking copyright cases in recent years, but it wanted this one.

Twitter: @eriqgardner