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In 'Raging Bull' copyright case, did she wait too long to get into the ring?

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
updated 6:10 PM EST, Tue January 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Daughter of screenwriter filed copyright infringement case
  • Other side's lawyers said she waited too long to make claim
  • Oscar-winning movie was about boxer Jake LaMotta

Washington (CNN) -- "So gimme a stage

Where this bull here can rage.

And though I can fight,

I'd much rather recite

That's entertainment!"

-- Jake LaMotta, rehearsing his stage routine, from the movie "Raging Bull"

It sounded like a good way to pass a snowy Washington day when the rest of the federal government was shut down because of the weather: watch a potentially entertaining Supreme Court oral argument, when the issue was about a Hollywood movie and the colorful life of a professional athlete.

The appeal deals with a 1963 book and screenplay on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta, the former middleweight champion who wrote it with his childhood friend and business partner Frank "Peter" Petrella.

LaMotta's story was made into the 1980 movie "Raging Bull," starring actor Robert De Niro.

But the underlying issue Tuesday was surely more dry: equitable defense and tolling for remedies in civil copyright claims.

The dense subject matter was enough to temper the court's creative, even mischievous streak -- no pop culture references to showbiz or sports; no clever rhetoric about this being a "knockout" legal fight; and no justice who would admit ever seeing the Oscar-winning film.

On purely aesthetic grounds, the justices' public review of the case was a disappointing script, the ending of which won't be known for months.

At issue is whether Petrella's daughter waited too long to file a copyright infringement lawsuit over the original screenplay and the subsequent rights to the story. Her father died a year after the movie's release.

Federal copyright law gave Paula Petrella the right to renew the copyrights before the term expired, which she did in 1991.

But her lawsuit was not filed until 2009. MGM Studios and 20th Century Fox -- the movie's distributor -- say that violates the established legal principle of "laches," which bars most claims that are unreasonably delayed, on the theory it would unfairly burden the adverse party.

Both sides also dispute what ownership rights the studio retained after the elder Petrella's death, and which were subsequently returned to his daughter. Paula Petrella claims she is the sole owner of the book and the original screenplay, and that the subsequent film infringes on those copyrights.

Paula Petrella seeks damages dating back three years from the filing of the lawsuit, and an injunction on further distribution of the work without compensation. Her lawyers claim the yearslong delay was caused by fear of retaliation, lack of money to file the suit and being told by the studio that "Raging Bull" was no longer making money.

MGM and Fox say they have invested heavily to convert the film to formats such as DVD for home viewing, and for overseas distribution. The companies say having an open-ended period to file copyright claims makes it hard to make future business decisions.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor posed tough questions for both sides.

"You see, counselor, this is my problem. I sort of disagree with you fundamentally, because I don't know that you're entitled to injunctive relief," she told Petrella's lawyer, Stephanos Bibas. "The government says you might be entitled to payment for the use of your copyright because it belongs to you and there shouldn't be some adverse possession right that the other side gets. But in terms of injunctive relief, given their [studio's] reliance on your failure to act for 18 years, they shouldn't be put out of business and told that they can't continue in their business."

Later, the studio's attorney Mark Perry called the plaintiff's claims a "bizarre argument." He added Petrella sought to "skim the cream" and pick an opportune time to file her claim, after the studio invested so much in the movie over the years.

"What's so bad about that?" asked Sotomayor. "You've gotten a lot of profits in those 18 years and, in fact, at one point when she did reach out to you, you told her, 'Why sue? You're not going to get any money. We're not making any.'"

The movie won two Oscars, including best actor for De Niro, who portrayed the boxer.

LaMotta is 92 and not a party in the appeal. The fighter also known as the "Bronx Bull" held the middleweight title from 1949-51.

The case is Petrella v. MGM, Inc. (12-1315).

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