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.
Continue Reading Supreme Court Says Raging Bull Copyright Case To Go Another Round

This column addressed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in the case Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., et al., approximately 18 months ago.  The Ninth Circuit held that the equitable defense of laches could be asserted to bar a claim for copyright infringement even if it was filed within the three-year statute of limitations.  As the column pointed out at that time, Justice Fletcher concurred in the opinion only because that it was consistent with prior Ninth Circuit precedent but pointed out that there had been a split among the various circuits as to whether this was a proper result.  Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court considered this circuit split and found that the Ninth Circuit erred in allowing the defense of laches to bar a claim for infringement that was brought within the three year statute of limitations.

A short recap of the facts of the case are as follows:  Jake LaMotta retired from boxing and with his friend, Frank Petrella, worked together to write a book and two screen plays concerning LaMotta’s life.  The works were registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.  One screen play in 1963, a book in 1970 and another screen play in 1973.  In 1976, Frank Petrella and LaMotta assigned their rights in the three works to a production company, which subsequently assigned the motion picture rights to MGM in 1978.   MGM released “Raging Bull” in 1980.

Mr. Petrella passed away in 1981 and his copyright renewal rights passed to his daughter Paula.  (Note: When an author dies prior to the beginning of a copyright renewal period, his successors get his or her renewal rights even if the author previously assigned the rights.)  Ms. Petrella filed a renewal application for the 1963 screen play in 1991.  She later retained an attorney who contacted MGM and others between 1998-2000 to notify them of Ms. Petrella’s copyright interest in the 1963 screen play and claiming that their exploitation of derivative works, including the motion picture Raging Bull, constituted infringement of her rights.  MGM responded by denying that it infringed on any of Ms. Petrella’s rights.  Ms. Petrella then waited almost a decade before filing suit against MGM and others in 2009.  Prior to trial, the district court granted summary judgment in the defendant’s favor on the basis of the doctrine of laches.  This was despite the fact that plaintiff had alleged that MGM had continued to infringe on her rights within the three year statute of limitation set forth in section 17 U.S.C. §507(b).  The Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment based on laches in 2012 and plaintiff appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Continue Reading Raging Bull Revisited – Copyright Infringement and the Laches Defense