A new case, involving an artist’s accusation that Harley-Davidson Inc. has infringed two copyrights, will now delve into the complex relationship between the affirmative defense of laches and the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations.  The decision (available here), by Judge Adelman of the United States District Court for the District of Wisconsin provides the setting.

Laches is an equitable doctrine which can be invoked when the plaintiff unreasonably delays in bringing a lawsuit and the defendant is harmed by the plaintiff’s inaction.  This leads to an obvious question: can the defense of laches apply even if the statute of limitations has not run?  Put differently, if Congress grants a plaintiff a period of time to bring his or her claims, can a court truncate that period?  This issue is further complicated in copyright cases.

In this case the plaintiff, Wayne Peterson alleges to have created several visual works for Harley-Davidson, including two logos:

Click here to view logos.

The first “Live to Ride” was allegedly created in 1985; the second, “Harley Davidson University” in 1991.  Harley-Davidson has been using both for at least two decades; Peterson brought his action in 2012.  In his complaint (attached here), Peterson claims that Harley-Davidson commissioned him to create these logos and paid him in full, and then used the logos. But Peterson also claims that he never transferred ownership of the copyrights in his works to Harley-Davidson. 

The Copyright Act’s statute of limitations (17.U.S.C. 507) seems straight-forward enough: “[n]o civil action shall be maintained under the provisions of this title unless it is commenced within three years after the claim accrued.”  But, as the Peterson case shows, many times copyright infringement is not relegated to a discrete incident—rather, the defendant’s conduct is ongoing.  Here, assuming the complaint is accurate, Harley-Davidson began using the first of these logos in 1985.  Some courts have held that Peterson’s failure to bring an action by 1988 bars his claims.  But others—as well as leading commentators—adopt a more liberal view that Peterson’s claim is not barred until three years after the last act of infringement.  The stricter view relies on the text of the statute and the application of the statute of limitations in other areas of law; the more liberal view focuses on the purpose of the statute, which is meant to be a limitation on remedies, not a limitation on rights.

Harley-Davidson sought to have the court adopt the more strict view.  Relying on its open and longstanding use of the logos, Harley-Davidson moved for dismissal, arguing that Peterson’s claims are barred by laches or by the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations.  The Court refused to do either.  Citing a prior decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court found that, if Peterson could meet the elements of his claim, Harley-Davidson’s acts after April 2009 would be within the limitations period.  Put another way, the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations would only prevent Peterson from pursuing damages for Harley Davidson’s use of the logos before April 2009.  

Which brings us to laches.  Harley-Davidson will clearly point to the delay and the fact that it spent more than 20 years developing these logos, relying on the fact that it believes it owns these logos.  And Peterson will probably have some difficulty showing that waiting two decades is “reasonable.”  Assuming that Harley-Davidson can make this showing, it is conceivable that it could succeed on its laches defense, while not succeeding on its statute of limitations defense.  Can a judicial remedy trump Congressional intent?  We may soon get one court’s view.