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Supreme Court to Decide if Copyright Owner Has “Slept On Her Rights” When Copyright Claim Brought Within Statute of Limitations

Section 507(b) of the Copyright Act provides for a three year statute of limitations within which a plaintiff may initiate a copyright infringement action.  The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on January 21, 2014 as to whether the defense of “laches” can be used to bar such a claim that was brought within that three-year window.

In 1991, Paula Petrella (“Petrella”) obtained a copyright interest in a screenplay about Jake LaMotta’s life and career, which was also said to be the basis for the movie Raging Bull.  This screenplay was previously assigned by her father and later acquired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. (“MGM”) before being renewed by Petrella.  In 1998, seven years after acquiring the copyright interest in the screenplay, Petrella’s lawyer warned MGM that any further exploitation of any derivative work of the screenplay, including Raging Bull, constituted an infringement of Petrella’s exclusive rights.  Despite her ire, Petrella did not sue MGM for copyright infringement until 2009, nearly two decades after obtaining the copyright.

Under the Copyright Act, every time a copyright is infringed a separate and distinct claim accrues.  This lawsuit involved only those claims accruing between 2006 and 2009 because the three-year statute of limitations prevented Petrella from raising earlier claims.  However, MGM argued that even the claims accruing within the statute of limitations should be barred by the doctrine of laches, which is an equitable defense preventing a plaintiff from raising a claim if the delay in doing so was unreasonable and prejudicial.  In other words, MGM contended that Petrella waited too long to file suit and her claims should be dismissed because she “slept on her rights.”  

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California agreed with MGM’s laches argument.  That ruling was affirmed by the 9th Circuit on Petrella’s appeal.  Turning to the Supreme Court for guidance and assistance, Petrella asked the Court to determine whether the doctrine of “laches” can be asserted to bar a claim brought during an established statute of limitations.  In other words, can the three-year statutory window be shortened by the laches doctrine?

In taking this case, the Supreme Court has decided to review a question that has seen only rare instances of litigation, but which has left at least two circuit courts on opposite sides of the issue.  In reaching its conclusion, the Court will consider questions of statutory interpretation, congressional intent, and the separation of powers.  The possibility that the Court’s answer could actually raise more questions rather than provide clarity to this issue means that we should stay tuned to learn more as this case progresses.



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