October 3, 2013Client Alert

Supreme Court Case Likely to Affect When Copyright Owners Must Bring Suit

On October 1, the United States Supreme Court announced it would consider a case likely to affect when copyright owners must bring suit to protect their copyrighted works.


Under 17 U.S.C. § 507(b), federal law dictates that copyright owners may not pursue copyright infringement claims unless they file suit within three years after the alleged infringement occurs. In some cases, however, courts have precluded plaintiffs from pursuing copyright infringement actions filed within that three-year window by applying the judge-made doctrine known as laches. Laches can bar an otherwise timely lawsuit if (1) the plaintiff delayed in initiating the lawsuit, (2) the delay was unreasonable, and (3) the delay prejudiced to the defendant.


In Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the plaintiff accused the defendants of infringing copyrights underlying the film Raging Bull. The plaintiff learned of the first acts of infringement in 1990, but she did not file suit until 2009. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants due to laches, even though some of the alleged infringement occurred after 2006 and thus fell within the statutorily prescribed three-year period for the plaintiff to seek redress. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, but one member of the three-judge panel wrote separately to point out several other circuits had prohibited or severely restricted the application of laches to copyright cases filed within the three-year statutory limitations period.


The Supreme Court granted the plaintiff’s request for review. The plaintiff described the Ninth Circuit’s ruling as not only at odds with every other circuit court to address the issue, but also in conflict with Congress’s intent to establish a clear three-year window for bringing suit, as expressed in 17 U.S.C. § 507(b). In resolving the appeal, the Supreme Court will determine whether, and to what extent, the laches defense is available to bar copyright claims filed within three years of an infringing act. A decision is expected in 2014.

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