Equitable Doctrine of Laches May, But Presumptively Does Not, Bar a Copyright Infringement Action Filed within the Statute of Limitations — Circuit Split

Equitable Doctrine of Laches May, But Presumptively Does Not, Bar a Copyright Infringement Action Filed within the Statute of Limitations — Circuit Split From Peter Letterese & Assocs., Inc. v. World Institute of Scientology Enters., 533 F.3d 1287 (11th Cir. 2008):

In answering the question of whether the defense of laches may be interposed in a copyright infringement suit, ... we cannot agree with the conclusion of the Fourth Circuit, which is an unqualified "no." See Lyons P'ship, L.P. v. Morris Costumes, Inc., 243 F.3d 789, 798 (4th Cir. 2001). Prather recognized the applicability of general equitable doctrines, and like tolling, laches falls into that category. Cf. Teamsters & Employers Welfare Trust of Ill. v. Gorman Bros. Ready Mix, 283 F.3d 877, 882 (7th Cir. 2002) ("What is sauce for the goose (the plaintiff seeking to extend the statute of limitations) is sauce for the gander (the defendant seeking to contract it)."). However, we remain mindful of the Fourth Circuit's invocation of separation of powers principles which counsel against the use of "the judicially created doctrine of laches to bar a federal statutory claim that has been timely filed under an express statute of limitations." Lyons P'ship, 243 F.3d at 798. We therefore answer this question with a presumptive "no"; 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. Cf. Chirco v. Crosswinds Communities, Inc., 474 F.3d 227, 234 (6th Cir. 2007) (noting the limited applicability of laches to copyright cases in "what can best be described as unusual circumstances"); Jacobsen v. Deseret Book Co., 287 F.3d 936, 951 (10th Cir. 2002) ("Although it is possible, in rare cases, that a statute of limitations can be cut short by the doctrine of laches, we see no reason to supplant the statute of limitations in this case." (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).

Even where such extraordinary circumstances exist, however, laches serves as a bar only to the recovery of retrospective damages, not to prospective relief. As the former Fifth Circuit explained in a patent infringement action:

Although laches and estoppel are related concepts, there is a clear distinction between the two. The defense of laches may be invoked where the plaintiff has unreasonably and inexcusably delayed in prosecuting its rights and where that delay has resulted in material prejudice to the defendant. The effect of laches is merely to withhold damages for infringement which occurred prior to the filing of the suit.

Estoppel, on the other hand, "arises only when one has so acted as to mislead another and the one thus misled has relied upon the action of the inducing party to his prejudice." Estoppel forecloses the patentee from enforcing his patent prospectively through an injunction or through damages for continuing infringement.

Studiengesellschaft Kohle mbH v. Eastman Kodak Co., 616 F.2d 1315, 1325 (5th Cir. 1980) (internal citations omitted). *** Permitting laches to operate as a bar on post-filing damages or injunctive relief would encourage copyright owners to initiate much needless litigation in order to prevent others from obtaining effective immunity from suit with respect to future infringements.

[Footnote 40:] The fact that we have permitted laches to bar injunctive relief in trademark cases ... does not compel our holding likewise in the copyright context. Unlike patent and copyright infringement actions, claims brought pursuant to the Lanham Act are not subject to an express statute of limitations, ...and unlike the limited terms of protection accorded to patents and copyrights, trademark protection "can be of indefinite duration and laches may correspondingly run for decades."

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