The Laches Doctrine in Copyright Law
The laches doctrine is a legal defense that allows the defendant to claim that the plaintiff’s assertion is barred on account of an unreasonable delay in bringing the claim. The defense is based on the notion that such a delay may result in evidence being misplaced or unavailable, or circumstances changing in such a way that it would be inequitable to allow plaintiff to pursue his claim.
Is the laches doctrine applicable to infringement actions in copyright matters? In a pivotal case, the Supreme Court ruled that the laches defense was not applicable to copyright infringement claims. Specifically, the defendant in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. argued that the copyright infringement action brought by the family of a Hollywood screenplay author was barred because the plaintiff waited seven years after acquiring the copyrights to inform MGM that it was infringing on its claim, and waited nine years before initiating legal action.
The Court determined that the laches defense does not exist for copyright claims because there is a clear Congressional directive on the matter. This statute precludes the assertion of infringement claims where the infringement occurred more than three years prior to the action. In the Petrella case, the Court held that the copyright statute did not bar the case because the infringement activities by the defendant were ongoing during this period. As a rule, the three year statute of limitations set forth by Congress for copyright infringement, wherein each infringing act initiates a new limitations period, is the only enforceable limitation for infringement claims. Thus, the defense of laches does not supplant the statute.
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