Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(c) includes laches as an affirmative defense in civil actions.  The laches defense allows a defendant to allege that a plaintiff unreasonably delayed in filing suit, thus precluding damages for the period of delay. On May 19, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States decided onPetrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In Petrella, the Supreme Court upheld that laches could not be used as a defense to preclude a claim for copyright infringement when a plaintiff brings suit within the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations.

Petrella brought suit against MGM alleging that MGM’s 1980 movie Raging Bull, based on the life of a boxing champion Jake LaMotta, infringed on her copyright of a comparable screenplay.  While Petrella renewed the copyright in 1991 and threatened suit in 1998, she did not file an infringement action until 2009. Petrella sought damages and injunctive relief for the three-year period prior to 2009 in accord with the three-year statute of limitations found in § 507(b) of the Copyright Act. MGM moved for summary judgment based on a laches defense that Petrella’s 18-year delay in bringing suit was unreasonable and prejudicial. The district court granted the motion; and the Ninth Circuit affirmed holding that MGM’s defense applied during the statute of limitations period.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, finding that in enacting the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations, Congress took into account the delay and therefore, laches could not bar Petrella’s claim for damages. Despite Petrella’s knowledge and admission that she waited to bring suit because the film was not making money, the court determined the statute of limitations was sufficient to protect MGM.

The decision may encourage copyright owners (and patent owners) to wait to bring suit. Indeed, the court noted “there is nothing untoward about waiting to see whether an infringer’s exploitation undercuts the value of the copyrighted work, has no effect on the original work, or even complements it.” This case also has potential implications for patent infringement lawsuits.  The Patent Act has a six-year statute of limitations under 35 U.S.C. § 286.

Alex R. Schoephoerster