‘Raging Bull’ Rights Fight Gets Hearing at Top U.S. Court

'Raging Bull'
American actor Robert De Niro stars as boxer Jake LaMotta in a scene from the 1980 Oscar-winning movie 'Raging Bull', directed by Martin Scorsese. Source: United Artists/Archive Photos via Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a dispute over the rights to the 1980 Oscar-winning movie “Raging Bull,” accepting an appeal from the daughter of a man who worked with boxer Jake LaMotta to write the screenplay.

The justices today said they will consider whether Paula Petrella waited too long to press her copyright claims against MGM Holdings Inc. units. Petrella is seeking damages for marketing and distribution starting in 2006. She is also suing a unit of Twenty-First Century Fox Inc., which has distribution rights for the film.

Petrella’s father, Frank Peter Petrella, was a longtime friend of LaMotta, whose life story was the basis for the movie. The two men produced a book and two screenplays, though the litigants disagree as to how much of a role each one played. They sold the rights to a production company in 1976 and an MGM unit later acquired the movie rights.

The film won two Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Robert De Niro, who portrayed LaMotta.

Under federal copyright law, Frank Petrella’s 1981 death meant his heirs had the right to renew the copyrights when the original 28-year-term expired. Paula Petrella filed a renewal application for the 1963 screenplay in 1991. Although her attorneys exchanged letters with MGM from 1998 to 2000, she didn’t sue until 2009.

A federal appeals court threw out the lawsuit, saying Petrella waited too long to assert her rights. The appeals court invoked a legal doctrine known as “laches,” which applies when a delay deprives the other litigant of a fair chance to mount a defense.

At the Supreme Court, Petrella says that laches shouldn’t apply and that she is limited only by the three-year statute of limitations in federal copyright law.

The case is Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 12-1315.

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