By David Hejmanowski
“If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win.”
— Joey LaMotta, Raging Bull
“‘The nature of the equitable,” Aristotle long ago observed, is “a correction of law where it is defective owing to its universality.’”
— Justice Stephen Breyer, Petrella v. MGM
Jake LaMotta’s boxing career started when he was a child in the Bronx. In the late 1920s he would fight neighborhood children in front of other adults to raise money for his family. His professional career began in 1941 and continued for more than 15 years during which time he was crowned World Middleweight Champion. After his boxing career he owned bars, acted and even did stand-up comedy.
In 1970 LaMotta joined forces with longtime friend Frank Petrella to write a book about his boxing career, which they called ‘Raging Bull.’ They two also wrote two screenplays. In 1976 they sold the rights to all three to a company that later licensed those rights to United Artists, a subsidiary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Although LaMotta is still living (he’ll be 93 in July), Petrella died in 1981, just as the movie version of his book was beginning to receive accolades.
The film won two Oscars, including Robert DeNiro’s second award for acting. Martin Scorsese was nominated for his directing and Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty also got acting nominations. The film was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to Ordinary People. The movie was not a box office success, though. It had a production budget of $18 million and earned only slightly more than half of that back in profits at the box office. It would be left to later VHS, DVD and digital sales and to television licensing rights for the film to finally become profitable.
Petrella’s death created a legal problem for MGM and ultimately led to a decision this week from the United States Supreme Court. Before that can be explained, some brief explanation on U.S. copyright law is in order. First, the term of copyright now extends for 70 years from the date of the death of the author, but for works created before 1978, that term is 28 years and may be extended for 67 additional years- an extension which applies to Raging Bull and thus extends the copyright of the original work for another 50 years. Second, and most important to this case, for those works created before 1978, the author’s heirs inherit the rights to extend the copyright protection after the initial 28 year term.
Thus, the fact that Petrella died before the original term had expired and the renewal had occurred means that his heirs, in this case his daughter Paula, inherited the right to extend the copyright. Absent an agreement to transfer the extension to MGM, the rights to the story would revert to her when the original period expired in 1998. She was aware of this, as was MGM.
Third, violations of copyright law, like most legal actions, have a statute of limitations. Under federal copyright law, an action to recover damages must be brought within three years of the breach of copyright. However, every individual violation of the copyright laws triggers a new three year period. As a result, Paula Petrella waited until January of 2009- after the film had become profitable- to file a copyright infringement claim against MGM.
The issue for the Supreme Court was fairly clear-cut. If the statute of limitations on these actions is three years and Petrella knew in the late 1990s that MGM was violating her inherited copyright ,did she forego the right to raise that claim be waiting nine more years to file her lawsuit? Or, since MGM’s continued marketing of, and profiting from, Raging Bull constituted new violations, could she essentially bring the action at any time?
As is often the case when a matter is not a hot-button social issue, the Court split on odd lines, with a 6-3 majority ruling in favor of Petrella. Justice Breyer wrote the dissent and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy. The majority (which included three of the Court’s liberal Justices and three of the Court’s conservative Justices) held that Petrella could file at any time and, if successful, could recover damages for the three years preceding her filing. They were unconcerned that she had waited until the film became profitable in order to file.
The dissenters were concerned that necessary witnesses would have died, documents would be lost and the matter could not fairly be tried after such a long passage of time. They would have applied the legal doctrine known as ‘laches’ and would have ruled that Petrella was now barred from bringing legal action against MGM.
The case will now go back to the federal trial court and the parties can, if you’ll forgive the pun, fight it out there to determine whether a copyright violation has actually occurred. The decision is relatively short and you can read it in full on the Supreme Court’s website at www.supremecourt.gov.
David Hejmanowski is a Magistrate and Court Administrator at the Delaware County Probate/Juvenile Court and a former Assistant Prosecuting Attorney.