Supreme Court Copyright Decision Determines When Laches Applies

by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP
Contact

On May 19, 2014, in a six-to-three decision written by Justice Ginsburg, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the doctrine of laches did not bar either legal or equitable relief in a copyright case that was brought within the statute of limitations, even though the case was filed many years after the copyright owner knew about the infringement.  The Court reversed and remanded the case to the District Court.  Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., No. 12-1315, (U.S. May 19, 2014).

Facts

MGM acquired the rights to a screenplay written by Frank Petrella and created the movie Raging Bull based on it.  Frank Petrella died during the initial copyright term of the screenplay, and his daughter, Paula Petrella, renewed the screenplay copyright in 1991, thus becoming the sole owner of the copyright.  Seven years later, in 1998, Ms. Petrella told MGM it was infringing her copyright; eleven years later, in 2009, Ms. Petrella sued MGM, seeking monetary and injunctive relief for copyright infringement.  MGM argued that the eighteen year delay in filing the suit was unreasonable and prejudicial, so her lawsuit was barred by the doctrine of laches.

Ruling

The Supreme Court held that since laches is an equitable doctrine, it has no bearing on the timeliness of actions for damages filed within the three year statute of limitation for copyright cases.  The Copyright Act anticipates lawsuits that are brought years after the work was created.  Because there is an explicit statute of limitation established by Congress, the laches doctrine cannot override that legislation.

While laches does not prevent a plaintiff from attaining damages for the three year period before the claim was filed, in “extraordinary circumstances,” a delay in filing the suit could limit equitable relief.  For example, the Court cited Chirco v. Crosswinds Communities, 474 F.3d 227, 230 (6th Cir. 2007), where the plaintiff knew that the defendant was using his copyrighted architectural design to create a housing development, but the plaintiff deliberately did not file a suit until after a substantial portion of the units were built and occupied.  The Sixth Circuit held that the plaintiff’s delay was so egregious and the harm to the defendant was so inequitable that the plaintiff was not entitled to an order mandating destruction of the units.  In Petrella, the plaintiff had informed MGM of her claim years before she filed a suit, and she was not seeking destruction of the film.  Therefore, the Court held that her conduct was not grievous enough for her injunction claim to be dismissed, although the District Court may take into consideration her delay when determining injunctive relief.

Bottom Line

Petrella establishes that a claim for legal relief (damages) would never be precluded by laches if there was an applicable statute of limitation.  However, in “extraordinary circumstances,” laches may limit equitable relief (injunctions).  The Court’s interpretation of the laches doctrine rests on a firm distinction between legal and equitable relief that may have a broad application to all cases with an explicit statute of limitation.  In practice, the Supreme Court’s decision in Petrella means that plaintiffs can still obtain legal relief even if they indefinitely wait to file a suit, but their legal claims will be limited by the applicable statute of limitations.  Plaintiffs can also get equitable relief, although the relief may be curtailed based on the specific conduct of the plaintiff.  

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP
Contact
more
less

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):
hide

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.

Security

JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.
Feedback? Tell us what you think of the new jdsupra.com!