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

May 19, 2014

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a client represented by Penn Law Professor Stephanos Bibas and students from the Law School’s Supreme Court Clinic. In a 6-3 decision that has wide implications for the entertainment industry, the Court held May 19 that the heir to the screenplay author for the film Raging Bull is able to pursue claims against MGM Studios that two lower courts had thrown out.

Bibas, who founded and directs the Supreme Court Clinic, represented Paula Petrella, who had been seeking $1 million in damages for copyright infringement, claims a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit previously dismissed. Her father, the late Frank Petrella, was a longtime friend of boxer Jake LaMotta and worked with him on a book and two screenplays about his life, on which the Oscar-winning 1980 movie, directed by Martin Scorsese, is based.

“My client is going to be able to have her day in court and get a trial on the merits of her case, which is what she’s been looking for all along,” said Bibas after the decision had been announced. “It’s very gratifying.”

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.

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 were asked to decide whether Petrella waited too long to press her copyright claims. The two lower courts said she did and had thrown out her suit based on the laches doctrine.

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion, “Nothing in this Court’s precedent suggests a doctrine of such sweep. Quite the contrary, we have never applied laches to bar in their entirety claims for discrete wrongs occurring within a federally prescribed limitations period.”

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

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 dismissed the suit, Bibas and the Clinic maintained that the laches doctrine, which is applied differently in different circuits, should not have barred Petrella’s claim. They argued 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,” Bibas and students wrote in their brief to the Court. “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 argued 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. The Court agreed.

The decision, said Bibas, “gives parties another tool to level the playing field.”

He noted that among the implications of the decision, “Studios now have to negotiate seriously and can’t just get cases tossed out, and more specifically, authors, artists, and creators who don’t have fancy lawyers don’t need to be hyper-vigilant about what they need to know or do to protect their rights.”

Moreover, Bibas said, “Plaintiffs don’t need to file a lawsuit at the first opportunity if they’re unable to afford it, or if they’re not sure it’s worth it.”

Writing about the decision’s wider implications, the entertainment trade magazine Variety noted that the “case’s impact may be greater now than even when ‘Raging Bull’ was first released, as studios rely so heavily on remakes and reboots, mining the past for bankable source material.”

Bibas said that as part of over a year’s worth of meticulous preparation for the case, “Students got to do everything from being part of the recruitment process for the case, to doing the client presentation and persuading the client to work with us, to rethinking the arguments completely from the way they’d been initially presented, to researching and writing the briefs.”

And then, when the Court agreed last September to hear the case, “We had just a month-and-a-half to write our merits brief, so students jumped in and read a century of legislative history, reached out to amicus groups on the side of authors-creators, and willingly sacrificed their winter breaks to be part of such an exciting case,” Bibas added.

“This decision is the culmination of countless hours of research, drafting, conceptualizing, and strategizing by the Clinic team, supervised and directed by superb professors whose expertise was most impressively on show, in the form of Professor Bibas’s oral advocacy, at the Supreme Court this past January,” said Parker Rider-Longmaid L’13, a Clinic student who worked on the case as a 3L.

Reflecting on the Clinic experience, Bibas said: “It’s the perfect transition from the third year of law school: from book-learning to putting it all into practice, getting out in the real world to litigate.”