The Raging Bull Rages On

A friend and client of mine, Paula Petrella, was and is a family friend of Jake La Motta, “The Raging Bull,” the boxer on whom the famous movie RAGING BULL was based.

In fact, Paula’s father, Frank Petrella (pseudonym Peter Savage), wrote two screenplays and a book about his lifelong friendship with Jake which became the backbone of the movie’s screenplay.

Paula’s father passed away a year after the film was released. Ten years after his death a new Supreme Court decision triggered a reversion of his copyrights to his heirs. (This decision was based on a copyright dispute in Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW.)

No one contested that the script was based on the 1970 book, but MGM/UA refused to recognize the reversion of rights. It said two things: (a) the movie hadn’t made any money; and (b) the film is not similar to the original 1963 screenplay authored by Mr. Petrella (which preceded his book by seven years).

Paula took this to court, and due to a somewhat arcane legal concept (“laches”: legal term denoting ‘undue delay on the part of the person filing the lawsuit’), the Ninth District Court threw the case out. MGM/UA claimed that too much time had lapsed before Paula had filed her copyright infringement claim.

However, Congress included a three-year statute of limitations in copyright law, and Paula’s case fell squarely within the required three years from the last infringement. A judge on Paula’s appeals panel disagreed with the decision to dismiss her suit and said that “there is nothing in the copyright statute or its history to indicate that laches is a proper defense to a suit brought under the [Copyright] Act.”

No other court in the nation allows laches to be overlaid on the statute of limitations in this way. Judge Fletcher said, “Our circuit has taken a wrong turn in its formulation and application of laches in copyright cases. We should revisit our case law to provide appropriate protection to innocent copyright owners who have brought infringement suits within the statute of limitations.”

Another associate of mine, Steven Lowe, undertook a study, and he discovered that in the past 20+ years, not a single case in the Ninth Circuit had been found in favor of the plaintiff in a copyright tussle. (See the YouTube link, “The Death of Copyright” — In addition, he discovered that the Ninth Circuit subverts the Supreme Court’s test for finding similarity between screenplays and films/TV shows, and therefore it almost never finds similarity.

Now, the US Supreme Court has agreed to hear Ms. Petrella’s case early next year. Seems that the Ninth Circuit is the only one in the nation to allow “laches” to operate in copyright infringement. This is truly exciting.

Should Paula be victorious, then she will still have to return to district court to pursue the matter, but in this instance, there would be no “laches” defense. This precedent could ensure that copyright holders are allowed to pursue their claims in the Ninth Circuit exactly as Congress intended.

Supreme Court documents to date:

Paula, we’re pulling for you!

All best wishes,

Eric Sherman

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