What is the relationship between laches and the statute of limitations in 17 USC Section 507? Laches is an equitable doctrine invoked when, through an unreasonable delay, plaintiff fails to act in a timely fashion in asserting its rights. But while laches properly focuses on plaintiff's blame in sitting on its rights, ultimately it is the harm to defendant from plaintiff's inaction that forms the basis for the defense. As an affirmative defense, defendant bears the burden of proof in establishing both unreasonable delay and harm therefrom: mere delay or passage of time is insufficient.
Can laches ever occur when plaintiff acts within the limitations period, in our case three-years from the time the claim accrues?
Statutes of limitation are pure creatures of legislatures; laches is a judicially created doctrine, and as a result some courts (those few who are modest) have expressed concern over separation of powers problems that would arise if laches is utilized to bar a claim brought within the limitations period. Professor Dobbs, the guru of such things, has traced the origins of laches to subject areas where there was no statute of limitations, and thus laches functioned as a form of judicial flexible statute of limitations. But where the legislature has acted, laches should not be available.
Courts do though have a hard time not dipping into the well of their self-created equitable powers, especially the Ninth Circuit which has used laches within the limitations period while ironically noting such applications are "rare." In Jackson v. Axton, 25 F.3d 884, 888 (9th Cir. 1994), that court wrote, without any supporting authority (who needs it when you create your own), "laches may apply whether or not any statutory limitations period runs."A subsequent opinion, Kling v. Hallmark Cards, Inc., 225 F.3d 1010, 1039 (9th Cir, 2000) seems to have misunderstood the issue entirely, writing:
[a] copyright holder would be vulnerable to the laches defense if
he had knowledge of a planned infringement more than three
years prior to filing his action, even if he complied with the statute
of limitations by filing less than three years after the infringement
Try explaining that to a client. And then there is the case that led me to this post in the first place, a June 26, 2006 opinion from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Gloster v. Relios, Inc., 2006 WL 1737800: "[O]nce the statute of limitations has run, the defendant is entitled to a presumption of laches, which the plaintiff has to rebut." I would have thought that once the limitations is past, plaintiff loses, and that if one is within the limitations period either laches has no role at all, or if it does, defendant bears the burden.