'Raging Bull' copyright appeal going to Supreme Court

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

The Supreme Court pondered Tuesday whether the daughter of the man whose work was the basis of the Oscar-winning movie Raging Bull should go another round with a major movie studio over copyright infringement for ownership of boxer Jake LaMotta’s life story.

The Raging Bull case involves an appeal from Paula Petrella, the daughter of Frank Petrella, whose written work inspired the movie. Frank Petrella collaborated with his friend LaMotta on two screenplays and a book, which were used to make the movie directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro. The 1980 film won two Oscars, including best actor for De Niro.

The elder Petrella died in 1981, with his copyrights reverting to his daughter. She sued Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. for copyright infringement for creating and distributing copies of the movie, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said she waited too long before filing her lawsuit.

Now she wants justices to resurrect her lawsuit. They will make a decision later this year.

The studio’s lawyer suggested that Petrella delayed on purpose in hopes of getting more money, saying she waited until after the 25th anniversary of the movie in 2005 to press her claim.

“What happened there is the plaintiff sat around, had a part interest in the gold mine, sat around and waited until somebody else developed it enough to make a profit, and then rushed in and demanded a share,” said lawyer Mark A. Perry. “That is what Ms. Petrella did in this case. She is demanding her share in the gold mine after my clients spent years developing it.”

Justice Antonin Scalia questioned why MGM should be punished, considering Petrella waited so long. “They invested substantial amounts of money, and then when that money starts to pay off, you file suit and you get three years’ worth of their profits,” Scalia said.

Petrella’s lawyer, Stephanos Bibas, said MGM had been warned about the copyright problems. “One who has notice of a registered copyright in the face of protest has no legitimate good faith expectation to continue to infringe. Either file a declaratory judgment act, engage in settlement negotiations or infringe at your peril,” he said.

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