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Supreme Court to Hear ‘Raging Bull’ Copyright Case; Could Undercut Favorite Studio Defense

If the high court reverses a 9th Circuit ruling, more copyright claims could come out of the woodwork

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider a copyright claim on Martin Scorsese‘s “Raging Bull” by the original screenwriter’s daughter, the high court announced Tuesday — an action that could take away a legal advantage widely used by studios if it breaks her way.

The challenge comes from Paula Petrella, whose father Frank Petrella wrote boxing champ Jake LaMotta’s autobiography and an early draft of the screenplay in 1963. She claims rights to “Raging Bull” reverted to heirs when the author died in 1981, before the 28-year copyright term expired.

Paula Petrella’s lawsuit accuses MGM and 20th Century Fox of copyright infringement and seeks at least $1 million in damages. The 9th Circuit federal appeals court – which covers Western states and is considered more studio-friendly in copyright cases than other circuits — threw it out in 2009, saying the lawsuit was filed too late.

Also read: MGM Wins Court Battle Over ‘Raging Bull’ Rights

But the high court has agreed to consider whether the studios’ “laches” defense, often successfully employed in copyright cases, applies here. The defense guards against individuals who know they’ve been infringed upon, but purposely wait for the most advantageous moment to sue; for instance, after a studio starts collecting revenue on a remake, sequel or homevideo release.

If the Supreme Court upholds the appeals court decision, studios can continue using the formidable defense, which they commonly trot out in copyright cases. If it strikes the decision down, more plaintiffs could come out of the woodwork with copyright claims, Jonathan Sokol, partner at Greenberg Glusker, explained to TheWrap. (Sokol does not represent any parties in the Petrella case).

Appellate courts have been split on the use of laches; Petrella’s lawyers argue that if the 9th Circuit’s decision is upheld, it could lead to “forum shopping.” In its response to Petrella’s filing, MGM said the 9th Circuit was correct, and argued that her 18-year delay precipitated several “egregious” prejudices, including the deaths of key witnesses.

A three-year statute of limitations applies to all copyright cases, so Petrella’s damage claim can only reach back to “Raging Bull” revenues MGM has reaped since 2008. A major argument against laches is that the statute adequately covers the interests of defendants in an already short window.

Pamela Chelin contributed to this report