In one corner, Paula Petrella, the daughter of Frank Petrella, co-author of the 1963 Raging Bull screenplays and book. In the other corner, MGM, the owner of the copyright in the critically acclaimed motion picture Raging Bull, based on the life of boxing champion Jake LaMotta. At issue, a 2009 copyright infringement suit against MGM in which Petrella alleged that MGM violated and continued to violate her copyright in the 1963 screenplay by using, producing, and distributing the Raging Bull motion picture. MGM, landed two very solid blows in both the District Court of the Central District of California and at the 9th Circuit; MGM was able to have Petrella’s case dismissed on the equitable doctrine of laches. However, the Supreme Court decided that Petrella could go another round.
After retiring from boxing, Jake LaMotta worked with Frank Petrella to tell his life story. Their efforts resulted in two screenplays, one registered in 1963, the other in 1973, and a book, registered in 1970. In 1976, Frank Petrella and LaMotta assigned their rights in the three works, including renewal rights, to Chartoff-Winkler Productions, Inc. Two years later, an MGM subsidiary, United Artists, acquired the motion picture rights to the book and both screenplays. In 1980, MGM released the film Raging Bull.
A year after the release of the film, Frank Petrella died. Works registered under the pre-1978 regime (such as the 1963 screenplay) enjoyed an initial 28-year period of protection followed by a renewal period of up to 67 years. Congress provided that the author’s heirs inherit the renewal rights. Since Frank’s death occurred during the initial terms of the copyrights in the screenplays and book, his renewal rights reverted to his daughter, who could renew the copyrights unburdened by Frank’s assignment of the renewal right to Chartoff-Winkler. Paula Petrella renewed the copyright in the 1963 screenplay in 1991. (The copyrights in the other screenplay and book were not timely renewed.) In 1998, Petrella’s attorney informed MGM that Petrella was the owner of the copyright in the 1963 screenplay and that MGM’s exploitation of any derivative work, including the Raging Bull motion picture, infringed her copyright. For two years, Petrella and MGM took jabs at each other by exchanging letters in which MGM denied the validity of the infringement claims and Petrella repeatedly threatened to take legal action.
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