High court: ‘Raging Bull’ copyright infringement suit revived

The people who create the ideas behind movies produced in Los Angeles often don’t get the recognition of J.K. Rowling, the author of the wildly-popular Harry Potter fantasy books. Many writers are firmly behind the scenes with other, less-than-affluent artists, while movie production companies and actors are in the forefront. Consequently, big-moneyed studios have a distinct advantage in intellectual property disputes with authors.

The name Frank Petrella probably doesn’t ring a bell. It’s highly probable you identify with the name Robert DeNiro, the star of the Academy Award winning movie “Raging Bull” and dozens of other movies. The film about boxer Jake LaMotta’s life earned DeNiro a best actor Oscar in 1981, the same year Petrella died.

Petrella wrote a 1963 screenplay, which a copyright infringement lawsuit claims was the basis for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Raging Bull.” The screenwriter’s daughter, who inherited the copyright, is suing MGM. A California federal appeals court favored the movie studio, which asserted the copyright claim was too old to be valid.

The litigation then moved to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices issued a split decision. Justices kept the case alive by ruling a lower court should rehear the case. The high court felt the daughter’s claim was not as ancient as MGM claimed.

The lawsuit concentrates on three years of alleged infringement leading up the case’s filing – the same years MGM spent $8.5 million to re-release “Raging Bull” on DVD. The U.S. Copyright Act limits a plaintiff’s time to file a legal action to three years after the time of infringement, but in this case, the Supreme Court felt the violation was “ongoing,” placing it within the legal time frame.

Copyright infringement litigation may be a one-time shot for artists trying to assert their legal rights. Going up against an industry Goliath must be worth the effort and expense. The first consideration is whether a case has a solid foundation.

Source: Reuters, “'Raging Bull' copyright fight goes to a second round” Lawrence Hurley, May. 19, 2014