The US Supreme Court has issued a decision in the Petrella v. MGM, 572 US ___ (2014).
The equitable doctrine of laches says that if a plaintiff waits too long before bringing a lawsuit, that suit cannot be heard. It’s a common-law version of a statute of limitations. Under a statute of limitations, a case can be forever dismissed because a case was brought too late. Under the equitable doctrine of laches, a case can be forever dismissed because the plaintiff failed to timely bring suit and the defendant was unduly prejudiced by the delay.
In Petrella, the movie Raging Bull (1980) is accused of infringing the copyright in a screenplay written and registered with the US Copyright Office in 1963. Raging Bull is, of course, based on the life of Jake LaMotta. LaMotta had a friend, a writer named Frank Petrella, who co-authored several works on which Raging Bull was based; the copyrights in those works were properly registered in the 1960s and 1970s. While Frank Petrella and his co-author of that screenplay assigned rights and renewal rights to United Artists (now a subsidiary of MGM) in 1979, when Frank died in 1981 (during the first term of the copyright on the Raging Bull screenplay), renewal rights reverted to Frank’s estate under Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207 (1990), and ultimately to his daughter and heir, Paula Petrella. Paula renewed the copyright in the only one of the three works on which Raging Bull is based in which she could do so, and is now the sole owner of that copyright. In 1998, Ms. Petrella sent notice to MGM that Raging Bull infringes her copyright and threatened suit. In January, 2009, that suit materialized with Ms. Petrella seeking monetary and injunctive relief limited to acts of infringement occurring on or after January 6, 2006 (that is, all acts that occurred within the three-year statute of limitations). MGM promptly answered with the defense of laches, claiming that the delay in filing from 1998 to 2009 was unreasonable and unduly prejudicial. The US District Court for the Central District of California granted the defense and dismissed the case on those grounds. Petrella appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who affirmed the District Court’s decision. She then appealed to the US Supreme Court, who granted certiorari.
The High Court reversed the decisions below. In a 6-3 decision, the Court decided:
The Ninth Circuit erred, we hold, in failing to recognize that the copyright statute of limitations, §507(b), itself takes account of delay. … [A] successful plaintiff can gain retrospective relief only three years back from the time of suit. No recovery may be hadfor infringement in earlier years. Profits made in those years remain the defendant’s to keep.
Brought to bear here, §507(b) directs that MGM’s returns on its investment in Raging Bull in years outside the three-year window (years before 2006) cannot be reached by Petrella. Only by disregarding that feature of the statute, and the separate-accrual rule attending §507(b), see supra, at 4–5, could the Court of Appeals presume that infringing acts occurring before January 6, 2006 bar all relief, monetary and injunctive, for infringement occurring on and after that date. See 695 F. 3d, at 951; supra, at 9–10.13 Moreover, if infringement within the three-year look-back period is shown, the Act allows the defendant to prove and offset against profits made in that period “deductible expenses” incurred in generating those profits.§504(b). In addition, the defendant may prove and offset “elements of profit attributable to factors other than the copyrighted work.” §504(b). The defendant thus may retain the return on investment shown to be attributable to its own enterprise, as distinct from the value created by the infringed work. See Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corp., 309 U. S. 390, 402, 407 (1940) (equitably apportioning profits to account for independent contributions of infringing defendant). See also infra, at 19–22 (delay in commencing suit as a factor in determining contours of relief appropriately awarded).
Last, but hardly least, laches is a defense developed by courts of equity; its principal application was, and remains, to claims of an equitable cast for which the Legislature has provided no fixed time limitation. See 1 D. Dobbs, Law of Remedies §2.4(4), p. 104 (2d ed. 1993) (hereinafter Dobbs) (“laches . . . may have originated in equitybecause no statute of limitations applied, . . . suggest[ing] that laches should be limited to cases in which no statute of limitations applies”). Both before and after the merger of law and equity in 1938, this Court has cautioned against invoking laches to bar legal relief. See Holmberg v. Armbrecht, 327 U. S. 392, 395, 396 (1946) (in actions at law, “[i]f Congress explicitly puts a limit upon the time for enforcing a right which it created, there is an end of thematter,” but “[t]raditionally . . . , statutes of limitation are not controlling measures of equitable relief ”); Merck & Co. v. Reynolds, 559 U. S. 633, 652 (2010) (quoting, for its current relevance, statement in United States v. Mack, 295 U. S. 480, 489 (1935), that “[l]aches within the term of the_statute of limitations is no defense [to an action] at law.”); County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation of N. Y., 470 US 226, 244, n. 16 (1985) (“[A]pplication of the equitable defense of laches in an action at law would be novel indeed.”)
The holding that laches cannot be used as an equitable defense within the period of the statute of limitations was made by only six of the Justices; the remaining three, who sit at the conservative end of the bench, disagree, stating:
[Laches] applies in those extraordinary cases where the plaintiff “unreasonably delays in filing a suit.” National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Morgan, 536 US 101, 121 (2002), and, as a result, causes “unjust hardship” to the defendant. Chirco v. Crosswinds Communities, Inc., 474 F.3d 227, 236 (CA6 2007) (emphasis deleted). Its purpose is to avoid “inequity.” Galliher v. Cadwell, 145 US 368, 373 (1892). And, as Learned Hand pointed out, it may well be
“inequitable for the owner of a copyright, with full notice of an intended infringement, to stand inactive while the proposed infringer spends large sums of money in its exploitation, and to intervene only when his speculation has proved a success.” Haas v. Leo Feist, Inc., 234 F. 105, 108 (SDNY 1916).
Today’s decision disables federal courts from addressing that inequity.
In this case, I actually agree with the majority’s decision. I agree with Learned Hand’s comment that it’s not nice for a copyright holder to let the proposed infringer take the risk then swoop in to reap the rewards, but that is not what happened here. Raging Bull came out in 1980. MGM invested heavily in the film in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While yes, they still market the film today and they market it based on new technologies, the marketing expense has decreased dramatically because of the film’s popularity, awards status, and fame. Really, all MGM has to do is produce the film on a new technology and sales are virtually guaranteed. Also, Petrella does not seek damages for infringement that may or may not have occurred in the 1980s, 1990s or even the early 2000s; her suit seeks damages only within the confines of the statute of limitations, which I think moots the dissent’s quote of Judge Hand.
We certainly do not want to impose an unneeded inequity on any defendant, but I don’t think this decision does that. The inequity of delay is addressed through the statute of limitations. There is a time-certain period outside of which a defendant cannot be successfully sued. That limitation is placed on the plaintiff by statute. Today’s decision does not allow a plaintiff to sue outside of the statute of limitations, which keeps the delay to a minimum.