Supreme Court Corner: Q4 2013

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By Stan Panikowski and Brian Biggs

Is the equitable defence of laches available in a copyright claim filed within the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations?

In Petrella v Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc, Petrella owns the rights to the screenplay for Raging Bull and brought a copyright suit against MGM in 2009 for its ongoing reproduction, marketing and distribution of the 1980 movie based on her father’s 1963 screenplay. Although Petrella only sought damages within the three-year statute of limitations prescribed by the Copyright Act, the Central District of California found Petrella’s suit was barred by laches, i.e. that she had unreasonably delayed her case. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Petrella argues a Circuit split: (1) the Ninth Circuit applies a presumption in favour of laches when any infringement occurred outside the three-year limitation; (2) the Fourth, Eleventh and Second Circuits hold that laches cannot bar relief from infringement occurring within the statutory limitations period; and (3) the Sixth and Tenth Circuits strongly disfavour laches in light of the statutorily mandated limitations period. MGM argues the Circuits are not split; instead, each trial court exercised its discretion under different facts resulting in disparate holdings. The court may narrow its holding to the copyright context; however, the court could also speak broadly about when laches is applicable to a cause of action with a statute of limitations…

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