This week the Supreme Court heard arguments about time and copyright and ownership as it relates to Raging Bull. Yes, THE Raging Bull. The case has nothing to do with the plot of the movie, but it concerns a legal concept called laches. Laches is all about delay, that someone who has waited TOO LONG to declare a legal right does not get to make the claim at all. Think, “If you snooze, you lose.” In the Raging Bull case, the claim involves Paula Petrella who is the daughter of the late Frank Petrella.
Frank Petrella was the friend of the real “Raging Bull” Jake LaMotta, the boxer played by Robert DeNiro in the Scorsese picture. But not only was he a friend of LaMotta, he was also the writer of a book and a couple of screenplays based on LaMotta’s life, which were the bases of the iconically well-known and critically acclaimed film.
When Frank Petrella died in 1981, his rights to his 1963 screenplay, Raging Bull, passed along to his heirs who then had the right to renew the copyright after the original period of protection. Paula did this. And her attorneys began exchanging missives with MGM in 1998.
But. She did not actually sue MGM until 2009.
The Hollywood Reporter shares Frank Petrella would have been, “unable to appreciate the long-term impact of his work, as he passed away in 1981.” What is the value of whatever rights Paula Petrella has in this classic movie? That will likely be determined if at all after the Supreme Court makes a determination if it agrees that she should be allowed to proceed in her claims vs. MGM. MGM said they spent more than $8.5 million promoting the film during the 1991-2009 periods that Ms. Petrella is spotlighting.
MGM won the case in the lower courts, first in a U.S. District Court in California, and again, on appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The linchpin of MGM’s win was this rarely mentioned and certainly not “sexy” doctrine of laches. MGM says Ms. Petrella was slumbering at the helm of her father’s legacy and therefore she has no right to reach out for a piece of the pie at a later date by failing to sue them before 2009.
The Supreme Court Clinic of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, helmed by Professor Stephanos Bibas, studied the case, the facts, and took on the challenge to present the case to the United States Supreme Court. Reading some of the statements from the court from earlier this week, as shared on Variety, have been very interesting.
Variety reports that Mark Perry, who spoke for MGM, “suggested that Petrella wanted to ‘skim the cream’ in waiting for an opportune moment to file the case, after MGM invested heavily in its anniversary re-release in 2005, Sotomayor said, ‘What’s so bad about that?'”
Marcia Coyle from The National Law Journal shares that the outcome of this case will influence the Copyright Act as there are many, “musicians, composers, authors who really want to be able to assert their copyrights after a certain period of time.”
I am rooting for Paula Petrella and her father’s legacy on this case. She wouldn’t have had a reason to sue if the film was not successful so her delay in filing a copyright claim makes total sense to me.
Other groups agreeing with Ms. Petrella in taking on laches include the Authors Guild, the Songwriters Guild of America, the American Society of Media Photographers, (they argue that the “rolling period” sought by Ms. Petrella “prohibits infringers from receiving a windfall after a long period of unauthorized exploitation”). Oh, and, um, the Obama Administration through Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who doesn’t think a studio gets to “establish that it would have been better off if a suit had been filed earlier.”
Image Credit: Amazon
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