When someone infringes your copyright, the time that you have to make your claim is limited. This is based on the legal principle called “statute of limitations.”
Statutes of limitation, in general, are laws that prescribe the time limits during which you can file lawsuits. The deadlines vary with the type of claim and — at times — they depend on the state where you live.
The purpose of such statutes is to reduce the unfairness of defending actions after a substantial period of time has elapsed. They allow people to go on with their lives, regardless of guilt, after a certain time.
The “Last Act” of Infringement
Because copyrights are governed by federal law, there is only one statute of limitations for copyright-related claims. Copyright infringement claims have a three-year statute of limitations from the date of the “last act” of the infringement.
What constitutes the last act can vary. If your image is published in a newspaper without your permission, for example, you have at least three years from the date that the newspaper was distributed to file your claim in court.
However, if the infringement continues, such as when the photograph remains on the newspaper’s website, the “last act” has not occurred until your photo is removed from the site.
Can Laches Shorten the Time to Sue for Copyright Infringement?
As a follow to the prior post on the Defendant’s Answer, one of the Affirmative Defenses that a Defendant may plead is laches. Laches are “a doctrine in equity that those who delay too long in asserting an equitable right will not be entitled to bring an action.” Some courts have considered whether laches could shorten the time within which a Plaintiff could sue for copyright infringement. But we now have an answer.
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court held in the case of Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., that: “Laches, we hold, cannot be invoked to preclude adjudication of a claim for damages brought within the three-year window.” The Court explained:
The Copyright Act provides that “[n]o civil action shall be maintained under the [Act] unless it is commenced within three years after the claim accrued.” 17 U. S. C. §507(b). This case presents the question whether the equitable defense of laches (unreasonable, prejudicial delay in commencing suit) may bar relief on a copyright infringement claim brought within §507(b)’s three-year limitations period. Section 507(b), it is undisputed, bars relief of any kind for conduct occurring prior to the three year limitations period. To the extent that an infringement suit seeks relief solely for conduct occurring within the limitations period, however, 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. And a plaintiff ’s delay can always be brought to bear at the remedial stage, indetermining appropriate injunctive relief, and in assessing the “profits of the infringer . . . attributable to the infringement.” §504(b).1
Petitioner Paula Petrella, in her suit for copyright infringement, sought no relief for conduct occurring outside §507(b)’s three-year limitations period. Nevertheless, the courts below held that laches barred her suit in its entirety, without regard to the currency of the conduct of which Petrella complains. That position, we hold, is contrary to §507(b) and this Court’s precedent on the province of laches.
Complete Your Copyright Registration Prior to Filing Suit
The Supreme Court also clarified that “[a]lthough registration is ‘permissive,’ both the certificate and the original work must be on file with the Copyright Office before a copyright owner can sue for infringement.” §§408(b), 411(a). So get your registrations filed before filing suit against your infringers!
HT: Leslie BurnsCheck Photo Attorney on Lynda.com, in the Lynda.com Article Center, and on Twitter!