U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Defense of Laches

Earlier this year, the U. S. Supreme Court came out with an interesting opinion clarifying the defense of laches. While this case was decided in the context of copyright law, the ruling likely affects all areas of federal law. The entire holding is summarized by Justice Ginsberg in three sentences:

courts are not at liberty to jettison Congress’ judgment on the timeliness of suit. Laches, we hold, cannot be invoked to preclude adjudication of a claim for damages brought within the three-year window. As to equitable relief, in extraordinary circumstances, laches may bar at the very threshold the particular relief requested by the plaintiff.

Thus, where Congress has established a statute of limitations, no delay—however unreasonable—will prevent a suit from going forward so long as some damage has accrued within the time prescribed by the statute. A defense of laches for an unreasonable delay will only affect the remedy sought by the plaintiff. And since latches is an equitable defense, logically it would only apply to the equitable remedies as opposed to the legal remedies.

For anyone interested in copyright law, this opinion is a great introduction to some of the inherent peculiarities caused by the long copyright terms and the various revisions to the copyright code.

To summarize the particular facts of this case, MGM was sued in 2009 by the copyright owner of the screenplay behind the 1980 movie “Raging Bull.” MGM argued the defense of laches “must be available to prevent a copyright owner from sitting still, doing nothing, waiting to see what the outcome of an alleged infringer’s investment will be.” The Supreme Court not only rejected this traditional view of laches but expounded on why this was exactly what the copyright owner should do: “there is nothing untoward about waiting to see whether an infringer’s exploitation undercuts the value of the copyrighted work . . . It allows a copyright owner to defer suit until she can estimate whether litigation is worth the candle.”

Also notable is the unusual split of the conventional blocks within the Court: Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion and was joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan. A dissenting opinion was filed by Justice Breyer in which Justices Roberts and Kennedy joined.