Yesterday the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., a case in which plaintiff Paula Petrella sued MGM Studios and a variety of other major players in the film industry for “infring[ing] her purported interest in a book and two screenplays that together allegedly formed the basis for the 1980 motion picture Raging Bull.” On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that Ms. Petrella’s action for copyright infringement was barred by the equitable defense of laches.
Judge William Fletcher wrote a concurring opinion to call the court's attention to “a severe circuit split on the availability of a laches defense in copyright cases.”
“Our circuit has taken a wrong turn in its formulation and application of laches in copyright cases,” wrote Judge Fletcher, who urged his colleagues to “revisit our case law to provide appropriate protection to innocent copyright owners who have brought infringement suits within the statute of limitations.”
Judge Fletcher summarized the “severe circuit split” as follows:
In the Fourth Circuit, there is no laches at all. If a copyright suit is brought within the statute of limitations, it may go forward. Lyons P’ship. L.P. v. Morris Costumes, Inc., 243 F.3d 789, 797-98 (4th Cir. 2001). In the Eleventh Circuit, “there is a strong presumption that a plaintiff’s suit is timely if it is filed before the statute of limitations has run. Only in the most extraordinary circumstances will laches be recognized as a defense.” Peter Letterese & Assocs., Inc. v. World Inst. of Scientology Enters., Int’l, 533 F.3d 1287, 1320 (11th Cir. 2008). Even if laches is found, “laches serves as a bar only to the recovery of retrospective damages, not to prospective relief.” Id. at 1321. In the Second Circuit, laches is available as a bar to injunctive relief but not to money damages. See New Era Publ’ns Int’l v. Henry Holt & Co., 873 F.2d 576, 584-85 (2d Cir. 1989). In the Sixth Circuit, laches is available in only “the most compelling of cases.” Chirco v. Crosswinds Cmtys., Inc., 474 F.3d 227, 233 (6th Cir. 2007).
Our circuit is the most hostile to copyright owners of all the circuits. In the Ninth Circuit, laches can bar all relief, both legal and equitable, when “(1) the plaintiff delayed in initiating the lawsuit; (2) the delay was unreasonable; and (3) the delay resulted in prejudice.” Maj. Op., at 10176 (citing Danjaq, 263 F.3d at 951).