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'Raging Bull' copyright fight goes to a second round

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday gave the daughter of a deceased screenwriter a second chance to fight movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc over her claim it infringed the copyright of an early screenplay for what became the iconic boxing movie "Raging Bull."

The court held on a 6-3 vote that Paula Petrella, daughter of Frank Petrella, could pursue another round of litigation against MGM over the copyright of a 1963 screenplay upon which she says the movie was based.

The high court reversed the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had ruled in favor of MGM.

Copyright law experts say the ruling could help plaintiffs in similar cases who hold copyrights for decades of old movies, songs and TV shows.

"The defendants have a lot of advantages" in such cases, including high-powered attorneys, said Stephanos Bibas, Petrella's lawyer. "This does a little bit to level the playing field."

The 1980 movie, starring Robert DeNiro and directed by Martin Scorsese, told the story of champion boxer Jake LaMotta, nicknamed Raging Bull. The movie won two Academy Awards in 1981, including the best actor award for DeNiro.

The legal question was whether MGM can argue in its defense that Petrella, who sued in 2009, waited too long to assert her claim. Monday's ruling falls short of a knockout as the court was only considering a preliminary issue. The case is now set to go to trial unless the parties settle, Bibas said.

MGM's lawyer, Mark Perry, said in a statement that the company continue contesting the case when it returns to the lower courts.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote on behalf of the court that the Copyright Act’s bar on lawsuits more than three years after a claim arises did not bar the lawsuit because Petrella said there was an ongoing infringement. Petrella was only claiming damages for the three years preceding the filing of her lawsuit.

Ginsburg played down the impact on MGM, noting that the Petrella lawsuit "will put at risk only a fraction of the income MGM has earned."

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion, in which he was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The Motion Picture Association of America and other industry groups backed MGM, saying a ruling for Petrella could discourage studios, publishers and distributors from reissuing old movies because unexpected copyright claims years after an original release could lead to years of litigation.

Groups representing authors, including Authors Guild Inc, filed court papers in support of Petrella. Her lawyer said she lives in Los Angeles and works in the entertainment industry.

Petrella, who inherited rights to the screenplay after her father died in 1981, sued when MGM was marketing the movie on DVD, including a new Blu-ray edition. MGM says it spent almost $8.5 million on the re-release.

The case is Petrella v. MGM, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-1315.

(Additional reporting by Eric Kelsey in Los Angeles; Editing by Howard Goller and Grant McCool)

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