PASADENA, Calif. (CN) – Since MGM profited from home editions of Martin Scorsese’s classic “Raging Bull,” the studio was not prejudiced by an 18-year delay in copyright claims by a writer’s daughter, her attorney told the 9th Circuit.
Paula Petrella claimed ownership of “Raging Bull” in a $1 million copyright suit against MGM and 20th Century Fox. Studios developed the film from a screenplay that Frank Petrella wrote in 1963 about the life of his childhood friend, boxing champion Jake LaMotta.
In addition to that screenplay, Petrella used the pseudonym Peter Savage to co-author the 1970 book “Raging Bull: My Story” with LaMotta and Joseph Carter. He also wrote another screenplay in 1973, “The Raging Bull.”
In the 1976 agreement with producers Chartloff-Winkler Productions, Petrella and LaMotta represented that the 1970 book served as the basis for both the 1963 and 1973 screenplays.
Petrella died in 1981, one year after the release of Scorsese’s adaptation. Ten years later, she filed the renewal application for her father’s 1963 screenplay. But she waited until 2009 to sue the studios.
The suit claims that the rights to “Raging Bull” reverted to Paula in 1981 since her father’s death caused the expiration of the original term of the copyright grant to MGM subsidiary United Artists.
But U.S. District Judge George Wu sided with MGM on its equitable defense of laches, finding that the studio was prejudiced by Petrella’s delay in filing suit.
MGM had already invested in the movie based upon the expectation that they were the owners of the film, Wu said.
On Wednesday, the three-judge appeals panel heard arguments from Petrella’s attorney, Glen Kulik of Kulik, Gottesman, Mouton & Siegal, to revive the case.
Judge Raymond Fisher appeared in person, while Judges William Fletcher and Jack Zouhary heard the arguments via video link-up.
Kulik said there are plenty of witnesses to testify about the case, naming Hollywood dignitaries including Scorsese and Robert DeNiro who played LaMotta. Credited screenwriters Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader and the boxer’s brother, Joey, could also testify.
MGM countered, however, that many other witnesses cannot testify because of Petrella’s “inexcusable” 18-year delay in filing suit.
In addition to those witnesses who are now dead, others no longer have the faculties to testify, Loeb & Loeb attorney Jonathan Zavin said, referring to the 90-year-old Jake LaMotta,.
Calling “Raging Bull” the film an original piece of work based on historical fact, Zavin added that it is not protectable under copyright law.
Since 1991, MGM has spent roughly $8.5 million on the release of VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray editions of the movie, the lawyer said.
Petrella was not entitled to wait and see if the movie turned a profit before filing suit, he continued.
Kulik countered that the studios would have made that investment regardless of Petrella’s lawsuit, and thus there was no showing of prejudice from delay.
In an interview with Courthouse News, Kulik said Petrella is facing a “formidable adversary.”
“In the end, I believe the trial judge made a mistake when he concluded the defendants had been prejudiced by any delay,” Kulik said. “In fact, they profited from the delay, and I believe that negates the laches defense. I am hopeful that the 9th Circuit will see it that way.”
Zavin declined to comment.
Both Scorsese and DeNiro picked-up Academy Award nominations for the 1980 film. DeNiro’s portrayal of LaMotta earned him the best actor award, but Scorsese lost out to Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People.” He did not win a best director Oscar until 2007 with “The Departed.”