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Penn Law Supreme Court Clinic waging copyright fight over Scorsese/DeNiro film “Raging Bull”

January 21, 2014

Culminating more than a year of meticulous preparation by students and faculty in the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Supreme Court Clinic, Prof. Stephanos Bibas will appear before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, January 21 to argue a copyright case involving Raging Bull, the Oscar-winning Martin Scorsese film in which Robert DeNiro portrayed the boxer Jake LaMotta.

Bibas, who founded and directs the Supreme Court Clinic, will be representing Paula Petrella, who is seeking $1 million in damages for copyright infringement. Her father, the late Frank Petrella, was a longtime friend of LaMotta and worked with him on a book and two screenplays about his life, on which the classic 1980 movie is based.

On one level the case is about a legal principle called “laches,” a judicial doctrine that bars suits brought after an unreasonable delay that is unfair to the other litigant. The justices are being asked to decide whether Petrella waited too long to press her copyright claims. Two courts said she did and have thrown out her suit based on the laches doctrine.

On another level, the case pits an individual copyright holder against a powerful Hollywood studio, in what Bibas describes as a “David and Goliath” contest.

The case, Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, began in 1991, when Petrella renewed the copyright in her father’s 1963 screenplay, “The Raging Bull.” MGM had acquired the movie rights, but under federal copyright law, Frank Petrella’s death in 1981 meant that his heirs had the right to renew his copyright when the original 28-year term expired. After the copyright was renewed, Petrella’s attorneys exchanged letters with MGM about her interest beginning in 1998, but she didn’t sue until 2009.

Arguing that the Supreme Court should reverse decisions by a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which have dismissed the suit, Bibas and the Clinic maintain that the laches doctrine, which is applied differently in different circuits, shouldn’t bar Petrella’s claim. They argue that the federal copyright law contains a three-year statute of limitations, which should take precedence.

 “Because Congress has specified a three-year period for bringing copyright infringement suits, judges may not use laches to constrict that statutory period,” they write in their brief. “The separation of powers prevents judges from reducing the time prescribed by Congress for bringing infringement suits.”

MGM continues to market and distribute Raging Bull in various formats. The Clinic argues that Petrella, who lives in LA and worked with her father on many of his films until his death, should be able to recover damages for infringements occurring between 2006 and 2009, when she first sued.

Petrella’s case came to the Clinic’s attention when a student, monitoring judicial action in the Courts of Appeals, noted the Ninth Circuit’s decision. “What was very interesting to us is that these copyright cases are like David and Goliath, where there’s a little plaintiff going up against a big studio,” Bibas said. “All the big firms have work with the big studios, so someone like Paula Petrella wouldn’t get big firm quality representation if we weren’t willing to step in.”

The Supreme Court Clinic is one of nine “live client” clinics at the Law School, where students help address unmet legal needs, while simultaneously acquiring practical skills through real-world practice. Participating in clinics is frequently a highlight of their law school years. That’s especially true of the Supreme Court clinic, which is tied to a semester-long seminar on the operations of the high Court.

Parker Rider-Longmaid L’13, who helped bring Petrella’s petition for Supreme Court review as a Clinic student last year, is currently clerking on the federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and will clerk on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals next year.  “If I had to choose a highlight of my time at Penn Law, it would be the Supreme Court Clinic,” he said in an email interview. “One of the most rewarding aspects of the Clinic is that it offers opportunities to develop your thinking on multiple levels and across multiple skill sets: high-level strategy (Which issues do we focus on? How do we think about amici for the case? Why is this issue important to the Supreme Court?), all the way down through how to most persuasively and concisely argue our side of the case and then, finally, make sure the final product is free of all errors. No other single law school experience I had required the development of all these competencies.”

He added: “Part of what made working on Petrella v. MGM so rewarding, in addition to seeing the case through from meeting with the client to filing a petition for writ of certiorari [Supreme Court review], was the relationship Clinic members got to develop with Ms. Petrella, hear her stories, and learn that litigation is about people and their cases, and not just an academic or intellectual exercise.”

After she graduates in May, Hannah Gerstenblatt L’14, will be starting in the fall as a litigation associate at Davis Polk in New York. “My work in the Clinic has given me so much insight into how Supreme Court litigation works,” she said. It has also provided excellent writing and research experience and bolstered “confidence in my ability to figure out tasks and draft writing on my own.” Working closely with Prof. Bibas and Professors James Feldman and Nancy Bregstein Gordon, who teach in the Clinic and are co-counsel in the Petrella case, “has been invaluable in seeing how they go about their work,” she said.

Like Rider-Longmaid, Matthew Klayman L’14 participated in drafting the petition for Supreme Court review and will be clerking in the Pennsylvania Eastern District Court and Third Circuit Court of Appeals after graduation. “My work with the Clinic has been invaluable,” he said. “It prepared me for my 2L summer and for my work on an appellate matter as part of an externship during my 3L year. Through the Clinic, I was able to gain practical experience in litigation strategy and legal writing at the highest level. The guidance and mentorship I received from the faculty helped me develop as a professional.”

After graduation, Jay Hobbs L’14 will start as a first year associate at Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, DC. His experience with the Clinic this year reflects the painstaking care with which cases are prepared and the teamwork that involves. “I’ve done everything from drafting preliminary sections of the brief to calling the printers about misplaced commas in the final proofs,” he said. “It’s a great privilege to work on high-level Supreme Court litigation, but some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned are broadly applicable. The Clinic is a great team, and we have to work together under tight time constraints, while ensuring our clients receive the best possible representation.”

On Tuesday that teamwork all pays off. When Bibas enters the courtroom for his fourth argument at the Supreme Court in the last three years, he will be stepping into an arena far more decorous than a boxing ring, but no less combative. He will have just 20 minutes to make Petrella’s case and respond to the justices’ questions. The Court will announce its decision in the Raging Bull copyright case by June.