Disputes over possession of an intellectual property are far from new in Hollywood but very few actually make it all the way to the court room. That’s what makes Paula Petrella’s case against MGM Holdings and 20th Century Fox Entertainment all the stranger considering the core of the dispute isn’t even directly related to the rights. The bizarre copyright battle over the 1980 film Raging Bull hits the Supreme Court on Tuesday. However, after several hours of deliberation they were unable to come to any kind of solution. Paula Petrella claims that her father, Frank, wrote a book and two screenplays based on the life and career of prizefighter Jake LaMotta back in the 1960s and 70s which served as the basis for the Martin Scorsese film. Petrella is said to have worked on the material in collaboration with the boxer. The nine justices though will not be deciding on proper lineage of the film, but rather, whether or not Petrella simply waited too long to press her copyright infringement claim against MGM and 20th Century Fox. Petrella first made the claim back in 2009 after most of the participants and witnesses are either too old to testify or dead.
The Academy award wining film notable for an incredible performance by Robert DeNiro is being protected by its studio using what’s called the “doctrine of laches” — meaning that lawsuits cannot be brought before the court if there has been an unreasonable delay. The studios claim that Petrella was well aware of the potential rights back in 1991, a full ten years after her father’s passing, and simply delayed filing suit for no good reason. Petrella explained to the 9th Circuit court in California the reason for the delay being that the film was deep in the red and she was unaware of a time limit. The Copyright Act has a three year statue of limitation and because MGM has continued to release the film in various formats since its inception, Petrella claim falls within it.
MGM stated at the Supreme Court that this bizarre copyright battle over Raging Bull an issue of fairness. Due to the fact movie studios own vast libraries of films that are continually being released on new platforms, they are also constantly needing to reset the clock for copyright and its statute of limitations. Without the doctrine of laches, authors, their families and their estates could lay claim whenever they please to ownership of certain properties. MGM has spent to date $8.5 million promoting and distributing Raging Bull on the assumption that they were the sole owners of the property.
The bizarre battle at the Supreme Court over Raging Bull’s copyright fight has Hollywood’s attention for an entirely different reason than its strange circumstances. If the courts rule in favour of Petrella, there could be serious ramifications for Tinseltown, economically speaking, as it would signify when someone is able to sue for copyright infringement. Two lower courts have already dismissed the suit though by agreeing to hear the case in the highest court, there remains a distinct possible of a reversal. Petrella’s lawyer have stated that she simply wants her share despite MGM’s claims the film has yet to make a net profit. If the supreme court sides with Petrella then this bizarre case would go back to a lower court to battle on whether she has an ownership interest in one of the most influential and celebrated film of all time.
By: Benjamin Murray