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9th Cir: Daughter's Delay in Filing Copyright Claim is Raging Bull

By Robyn Hagan Cain on August 30, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday that the daughter of the writer who co-authored source material for the Martin Scorcese film Raging Bull waited too long to file her copyright claims, reports Courthouse News Service.

Paula Petrella filed a copyright infringement action against assorted Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer companies, United Artists, and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, (the defendants) in 2009. According to Petrella, the defendants infringed her purported interest in the material that allegedly formed the basis for the 1980 film, Raging Bull. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants, holding that Petrella’s claims were barred by the equitable defense of laches.

This week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.

Jake LaMotta, the real-life boxer portrayed in Raging Bull, collaborated with Frank Peter Petrella to produce a book and two screenplays about LaMotta's life, which allegedly became the movie, Raging Bull. The works were registered with the United States Copyright Office.

(The Ninth Circuit opinion has an extensive explanation of who owned which copyrights and when they were filed, if you're interested.)

In 1981, during the original 28-year term of the copyrights for the book and the two screenplays, F. Petrella died, and his renewal rights in the works passed to his heirs. As his daughter, Petrella now alleges she is the sole owner of the F. Petrella interest in the works.

Based on the Supreme Court's holding in Stewart v. Abend, Petrella's attorney filed a renewal application for a 1963 Raging Bull screenplay in 1991. In 1998, Petrella's attorney contacted the defendants, asserting that Petrella had obtained the rights to the 1963 screenplay and that the exploitation of any derivative work, including Raging Bull, was an infringement of these exclusive rights.

Over the course of the next two years, Petrella and the defendants exchanged letters in which she accused the defendants of copyright infringement, and the defendants insisted they had done no such thing. Petrella repeatedly threatened to take legal action, but she didn't do so until 2009.

The three-judge panel agreed this week that Petrella's claims were too late to be actionable due to laches.

Petrella argued that she had waited 18 years to file her lawsuit after learning of her potential claims because she had too little money and too many family problems, reports Courthouse News Service. She also claimed that the defendants had not been prejudiced by the delay because they had been making money on the film.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Judge Raymond Fisher, writing for the panel, noted, "The evidence suggests the true cause of Petrella's delay was, as she admits, that 'the film hadn't made money' during this time period. A delay 'to determine whether the scope of proposed infringement will justify the cost of litigation' may be reasonable; but delay for the purpose of capitalizing 'on the value of the alleged infringer's labor, by determining whether the infringing conduct will be profitable' is not."

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