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[MGMYR.UL] for allegedly infringing on 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 a second round of litigation against MGM over the copyright of a 1963 screenplay upon which she says the movie was based.
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.
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, a subsidiary of Twenty-First Century Fox Inc, is also a defendant in the case because it has the rights to distribute MGM movies on DVD.
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 it was only considering a preliminary issue. A lower court will hear the case on the merits.
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 was alleging ongoing infringement. Petrella was only claiming damages for the three years prior to the filing of her lawsuit.
Ginsburg played down the impact of the lawsuit on MGM, noting that 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.
Petrella, who inherited rights to the screenplay upon her father's death 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.
A federal district court judge in the Central District of California and the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both ruled in favor of MGM.
The case is Petrella v. MGM, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-1315.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller)