Satija v. Permanent Gen. Assur. Corp. of Ohio, 1:13-CV-00082, 2014 WL 657869 (N.D. Ohio Feb. 19, 2014)

Donning his uniform, thick white mustache, and reflective sunglasses, the “General” cartoon character, who commands attention as the mascot of an insurance company in television commercials, is soon to star in a new medium: the jury trial.

The plaintiff—the bankruptcy trustee of a former employee of the defendant insurance company—claimed that it owned the copyright to the General cartoon character (who urges, “For the best car insurance rates in town, call 1 800 General now!)”. The defendants asserted that plaintiff’s claims were barred by laches and moved for summary judgment.

The court began its analysis by noting that “the doctrine of laches in copyright cases is complex,” but hopefully will “become clearer after the Supreme Court considers an appeal from the Ninth Circuit” regarding the application of laches to copyright claims.

The court then assessed whether the plaintiff had delayed in bringing its claims. Based on the alleged illustrator’s testimony that he might have seen defendants’ advertisements incorporating the General as early as 2000, and definitely saw advertisements in the “mid to late 2000s,” the court found that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the plaintiff discovered the alleged infringement as late as 2008. Because that was more than three years before bringing suit, the plaintiff had delayed and therefore a presumption of laches applied.

Nevertheless the court found an issue of material fact as to whether the plaintiff’s delay in bringing suit was unreasonable. Pointing to the illustrator’s testimony that he was unaware of the extent of the defendants’ use of the General and that his work colleague told him not to pursue the issue, the court held that it could not conclude as a matter of law that the plaintiff’s delay was unreasonable. Rather, it determined that the question was appropriate for an advisory jury.

Accordingly, the court denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment and held that the issues of unreasonable delay and prejudice would be addressed to advisory jury for resolution.