Supreme Court Debates Laches Defense — Change Is Coming

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Jan. 22, 2014 — In an energetic oral argument on Jan. 21 that would have made first-year law students cringe, the Supreme Court debated the proper role of laches as a defense against the backdrops of statutory language versus Congressional intent, equitable versus legal remedies, and the Rules Enabling Act (for those of you who may not remember that, it’s the 1934 Act leading to the creation of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure). Specifically, in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., the Justices will decide what role, if any, the venerable equitable defense of laches plays under the Copyright Statute, where Congress has provided for an express three-year statute of limitations. Notably, based on the Court’s questions, it is plausible that the decision will impact patent and trademark litigation as well, where laches is also frequently raised as a defense.

“Raging Bull” -

The case involves a claim of copyright infringement concerning the movie and screenplay for the boxing biography “Raging Bull.” Petrella — the daughter of one of the authors — sued MGM claiming both damages and an injunction for violation of her father’s copyrights. MGM won summary judgment that laches barred the suit because Petrella had delayed too long (allegedly 19 years) in filing suit. On appeal the Ninth Circuit affirmed, rejecting Petrella’s argument that laches could not bar relief for infringing acts occurring within the three-year statute of limitations time period before suit was filed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari due to the split among the circuits as to the availability of laches as a defense in copyright cases, and what impact the defense has if it is available.

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