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.
"I could see it coming up more now," he said.
Petrella, who inherited rights to the screenplay upon her father's death in 1981, renewed the copyright in 1991 after hearing about a 1990 Supreme Court decision in which the court ruled in favor of the copyright holder of a magazine article upon which the Alfred Hitchcock movie "Rear Window" was based. But she did not take action until the late 1990s. Then she said MGM was infringing on her rights by continuing to market the movie.
According to the Internet Movie Database, the movie was based on a separate book written by Petrella with LaMotta and another author, Joseph Carter. The copyright to that book is not the subject of the Supreme Court case.
Normally, copyright owners have three years in which to file a lawsuit after each time an alleged infringer uses his or her work unfairly. Petrella says MGM did so when it marketed the movie on DVD, including a new Blu-ray edition.
CASE CLOSELY WATCHED
In 1998, Petrella started exchanging letters with MGM, saying her rights were being infringed. She eventually sued in 2009, claiming damages for the previous three years as allowed for under copyright law.
MGM successfully claimed that Petrella's failure to assert her claims earlier meant she had forfeited them. The studio said there was no infringement in any case because it had rights to LaMotta's story from an agreement with the boxer. MGM also disputed whether the movie even infringed on the 1963 screenplay because it wasn't sufficiently similar to it.
A federal district judge and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco both appeared to deliver knockout blows in favor of the studio.
John Chatowski, an intellectual property attorney at Nixon Peabody, said the case, which could also affect claims relating to musical works and books, will be closely watched by the copyright community.
The Supreme Court even choosing to take the case, he said, puts copyright owners on notice that there are "consequences of standing on your rights."
Attorneys for both sides could not immediately be reached for comment.
Oral arguments and a decision are expected in the court's upcoming term, which starts on Monday and ends in June.
The case is Petrella v. MGM, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-1315.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington and Erin Geiger Smith in New York; Editing by Howard Goller, Lisa Von Ahn and Lisa Shumaker)