'Raging Bull' copyright fight headed for U.S. Supreme Court

Wed Oct 2, 2013 2:23pm EDT
 
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By Lawrence Hurley and Erin Geiger Smith

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Emotionally raw boxing movie "Raging Bull" may have come out 33 years ago, but a copyright fight over an early screenplay has found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court on Tuesday agreed to take up the case brought by Paula Petrella, daughter of the deceased screenwriter Frank Petrella.

She says MGM Holdings Inc and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment have infringed the copyright of a 1963 screenplay upon which she alleges 1980 movie was based. Fox, a subsidiary of Twenty-First Century Fox Inc, is a named defendant because it has the rights to distribute MGM movies on DVD.

The critically acclaimed movie about the life of champion boxer Jake LaMotta, who was nicknamed Raging Bull, starred Robert DeNiro and was directed by Martin Scorsese. It won two Academy Awards in 1981, including the best actor award for DeNiro.

LaMotta's tale is described by the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) website as an "emotionally self-destructive boxer's journey through life, as the violence and temper that leads him to the top in the ring destroys his life outside it."

The legal issue is less dramatic, raising the question in what circumstances a defendant in a copyright case can win based on the failure of the plaintiff to assert his or her claim at an earlier stage. Federal courts of appeal are split on the issue, which is most likely why the court agreed to hear the case, legal experts say.

COULD SET PRECEDENT

The case could have a bearing on similar instances in which the heirs of copyright owners later seek to press claims, especially at a time when Hollywood is often basing new movies on older ideas, said Jonathan Sokol, a lawyer in Los Angeles who handles such cases.   Continued...

 
Robert DeNiro arrives to the 25th anniversary screening of the film 'Raging Bull,' in New York, January 27, 2005. DeNiro played boxer Jake LaMotta in the film. REUTERS/Chip East