By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, Jan 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices sparred on Tuesday over how to resolve a copyright dispute concerning an early screenplay for what became the iconic boxing movie "Raging Bull."
Lawyers on both sides failed to deliver a knockout blow during the hour-long oral argument concerning the critically acclaimed movie about the life of champion boxer Jake LaMotta, nicknamed Raging Bull.
The court is hearing a claim brought by Paula Petrella, daughter of deceased screenwriter Frank Petrella. She says MGM Holdings Inc and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment owe her money for infringing the copyright of a 1963 screenplay upon which she alleges the movie was based. Fox, a subsidiary of Twenty-First Century Fox Inc is a defendant because it has the rights to distribute MGM movies on DVD.
The 1980 movie, starring Robert DeNiro and directed by Martin Scorsese, won two Academy Awards in 1981, including the best actor award for DeNiro.
The legal question is whether MGM can argue in its defense that Petrella, who sued in 2009, waited too long to assert her claim.
The Motion Picture Association of America and other industry groups say 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, have filed court papers in support of Petrella.
During the dense legal argument, few of the nine justices indicated how they would vote, although several indicated some sympathy for MGM's position.
Justice Antonin Scalia told Petrella's lawyer, Stephanos Bibas, that MGM had acted in good faith.
"They invested substantial amounts of money, and then, when that money starts to pay off, you file suit and you get three years' worth of their profits," he said.
In an exchange with MGM's lawyer, Mark Perry, Justice Sonia Sotomayor voiced some support for Petrella.
Perry said that by seeking damages at such a late date, Petrella was trying to "skin the cream" after MGM had invested a considerable amount of money.
"What's so bad about that?" Sotomayor said.
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.
A ruling is expected by the end of June. The case is Petrella v. MGM, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-1315.