Raging Battle Over Copyright
The IP bar is hanging on a dispute over the rights to a classic movie.
Frank "Peter" Petrella helped world middleweight champion Jake LaMotta teach actor Robert De Niro how to box for the Academy Award-winning film Raging Bull. Now Petrella's daughter is taking those fight lessons into a different arena — the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., Paula Petrella asks the justices to give her the chance to prove that MGM infringed the copyright on her late father's screenplay which, she contends, formed the basis for Raging Bull, considered one of the best films ever made.
At the same time, a new organization of lawyers representing artists, writers and other creators is urging the high court to use her case to repudiate the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, noting that a judge on that intermediate appeal court has called it "the most hostile to copyright owners of all the circuits." The organization's founder said that no plaintiff has won a literary copyright infringement case against film studios or networks in the Ninth Circuit in two decades.
The legal question in the Petrella petition for review presents a bread-and-butter concern for artists who spend years trying to assert their rights to their works, and to the companies defending against their claims.
Key to the case is the doctrine of laches, which bars a plaintiff from recovery if he or she waited too long to sue without a good reason; the idea is that its unreasonable to expect a party to defend against a stale lawsuit. Petrella's lawyer, Stephanos Bibas of the University of Pennsylvania Law School's Supreme Court Clinic, argues the laches defense is not available in copyright infrigement claims. MGM's counsel, Mark Perry of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, insists that is is, especially when a plaintiff, like Petrella, waited 18 years to assert her rights.
Judge William Fletcher, who offered the comment about the Ninth Circuit's hostility toward copyright owners in his Petrella concurrence, noted a "severe circuit split" over whether laches is a defense to copyright actions.
"As the cert petition reflects, courts are definitely going different ways on this question," said David Nimmer, of counsel to Irell & Manella and co-author with his late father of Nimmer on Copyright, the leading reference treatise in the field.
"My father was my hero," said Paula Petrella, adding that Peter Petrella, son of immigrant parents from southern Italy, was a complicated and brilliant man "who had started life on the wrong foot but turned himself around through the power of his intellect."
He and lifelong friend Jake LaMotta grew up poor in the Bronx, N.Y., during the Depression. Petrella served five years in prison for a crime his daughter claims he did not commit, but while there he educated himself and won his freedom. When LaMotta turned to boxing as a career, Petrella took up business and writing. "While he was developing Raging Bull, he also wrote, directed, produced and acted in his own films, one of which he headlined with Jane Russell," she said. "They all also featured Jake in one way or another."
Petrella wrote three works based on LaMotta's experiences. In 1963, after the boxer's retirement from the ring, Petrella wrote a screenplay titled The Raging Bull, which he registered with the U.S. Copyright Office as sole author and claimant. In 1970, he wrote a book and registered it with the copyright office, which listed LaMotta as claimant and Petrella and Joseph Carter as authors. And in 1973, Petrella wrote a second screenplay, which he registered as sole author and claimant.