Showing posts with label laches. Show all posts
Showing posts with label laches. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Opening Pandora's Box: Supreme Court Allows Archaic Copyright Infringement Cases to Proceed

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court opened Pandora's Box.

The decision that the Supreme Court may come to regret involved a copyright infringement lawsuit surrounding the script to the movie Raging Bull, which was released in 1980.  In the film, Oscar-award winning actor Robert DeNiro played boxer Jake LaMotta.  

An heir to the co-author of a 1963 screenplay about the life of the boxer apparently waited until 2009 to file a copyright lawsuit, claiming that the 1980 movie had copied portions of her father's screenplay without authorization.

The District Court in Los Angeles and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals applied the equitable doctrine of "estoppel by laches," borrowing the 3-year statute of limitations in the U.S. Copyright Act.  Those Courts both found that the writer's heir had deliberately waited to file suit, prejudicing MGM which had released the film thirty-four years ago.

However, on Monday, in an unusual 6-3 split not along ideological lines, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, finding that the significant delay will not bar the heir from seeking damages or an injunction on a rolling basis, going forward.

The majority reasoned that each time a new Raging Bull DVD is printed and sold, there is a new independent act of copyright infringement potentially violating the heir's copyrights. Every new DVD that is printed, every time the film is broadcast on television or the film is re-mastered or re-released, is effectively a new act of infringement subject to the 3-year window going forward, not backward.

The end result is that copyright disputes that originated thirty or forty years ago -- or even in the more distant past -- can be resurrected and instituted now.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts dissented, holding that the precedent would upset settled doctrine, and open up years of litigation over old wounds.

70-year old Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and others in Led Zeppelin presumably agree with the dissent's point of view.

In 1971, Zeppelin released the now iconic "Stairway to Heaven."  According to some estimates, the song has earned at least $562 million since its release, a number poised to rise higher since Zeppelin is set to release new versions of its albums this summer.

Relying on Monday's Raging Bull decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, Time magazine reports that a new copyright infringement lawsuit has now been filed by representatives of the band Spirit, which released an instrumental song "Taurus" in 1968.  According to the newly-filed lawsuit, Zeppelin opened for Spirit in the late 1960's, and was inspired to write the now famous guitar introduction to Stairway.

Direct evidence of copying may nonetheless be difficult to gather.  Spirit's lead guitarist Randy California died in 1997 and documents showing copying, if any, were presumably lost to the mists of time.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Jay-Z, Kanye West, Run D.M.C. and Others Sued for Past Sampling

Unauthorized "sampling" of catchy melodies used in modern music is heating up as a recurring legal issue.  

Several high-profile copyright cases have been filed in recent months against major performers, accusing them of taking a portion, or "sample," of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a sound recording in a different song or piece, without authorization.

As discussed in detail on Wikipedia, sampling was originally developed by experimental musicians in the 1960's.  However, hip hop music was the first popular music genre based around the art of sampling - being born from 1970's DJs who experimented with manipulating vinyl on two turntables.

Sampling is now most often done today with a computer program. However, vinyl emulation software may also be used, and turntablists continue to sample using traditional methods.  The inclusion of sampling tools in modern digital production methods increasingly introduced sampling into many genres of popular music, as well as genres predating the invention of sampling, such as classical music, jazz and various forms of traditional music.

Several recent cases have been filed against established performers, premised on allegations that such activity constitutes a clear form of copyright infringement -- even when the alleged infringement occurred decades ago, and was only recently discovered.

It is likely that sophisticated software tools have allowed performers to go back and analyze musical catalogs to locate potential infringement that may have been harder to audibly detect with the "naked ear."

Jay-Z, Kanye West, Mark Wahlberg, Run D.M.C. and many others face a new copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Twilight Records and Syl-Zel Music which claim that the 1967 song "Different Strokes" that was performed and recorded by Syl Johnson was sampled without permission in a variety of derivative works in the 1990's.

According to the suit which was filed in federal district court in Chicago, Usher infringed upon the Different Strokes copyright with his 1993 song "Call Me a Mack," while Public Enemy allegedly made use of a copyrighted riff without authorization on multiple hit songs including Fight the Power.

Both Mark and Donnie Wahlberg are accused of sampling the same tunes on "The Last Song on Side B."  Run D.M.C. faces similar allegations for its songs "Naughty" and "Beats to the Rhyme."  All of the accused songs were released in the 1990's.

The Different Strokes melody has previously been the subject of similar litigation against more recent music performed by Jay-Z and Kanye West.  A lawsuit filed in 2011 had claimed that those performers improperly sampled the tune on their "Watch the Throne" album.  That suit was settled confidentially.

Putting aside the merits of the factual allegations, the latest cases may face an interesting legal problem.

The U.S. Copyright Act imposes a three year statute of limitations on civil copyright infringement claims from when the claim "accrued," barring a copyright owner from seeking damages for infringement that occurred in the past.

However, where alleged infringement is ongoing, federal courts have split on whether any bar applies, and whether the more flexible and equitable "estoppel by laches" defense should apply.

Furthermore, there is some dispute as to when the statute of limitations begins to run, given modern technology.  Usher's song "Call Me a Mack" was released in 1993, two decades ago.  However, the use of iTunes and cell tone ringtones have created a robust new marketplace for such a song.

Other courts have held that the doctrine does not apply in this context, because there is nothing in the text or legislative history of the U.S. Copyright Act that suggests that Congress ever intended for an equitable defense to apply.  It is unclear if the Supreme Court will resolve this split among the federal appeal courts on how to measure a purported delay.

Injunctions against further use of the song by these third parties could present a concern, but equally worrisome to these defendants is the fact that the copyright owner has sought an accounting for all past profits, as well as reimbursement of its' attorneys' fees.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Delay in Resolving ABSOLUT Trademark Dispute Raises Thorny Issues

The Everett, Washington hair salon's name/logo
Self-help guru Napoleon Hill once wrote that "procrastination is the bad habit of putting off until the day after tomorrow what should have been done the day before yesterday."  A number of parties involved in a trademark dispute in the state of Washington may agree with that statement more than they would care to.

According to recent reports, when Jesse Skittrall purchased the small Absolut Hair and Makeup salon in Everett, Washington in 2009, he was informed by Gayle Pratt, the former owner of the salon, that Vodka giant Absolut had sent a formal cease and desist letter in 2005, but didn't follow up on its demand that the salon change its name.

Consequently, Pratt evidently concluded that the matter was not being pursued by the vodka maker, and the hair salon management changed hands.

However, at the end of July 2013, the vodka maker finally followed up, and reportedly gave Skittrall until January 1, 2014 -- 6 months -- to completely change the salon's name, or else face a federal lawsuit for trademark infringement.

Skittrall has appealed to the community to raise money, and appeared on local radio stations, complaining that the vodka company had "come out of nowhere."

On, Skittrall apparently seeks as much as $20,000 to fund the name change, but as of today, has raised only $125.  It is not clear why it would cost $20,000 for the business to change its name, but the salon would obviously need new signage, a new website and new business cards.
The Vodka Maker's Trademark

On the crowd funding site, Skittrall claims that "I bought the business with this name and existing signage and was not aware of any trademark issues."

But the former owner disputes Skittrall's characterization, saying that she fully informed him of the unresolved trademark dispute back in 2009.

But what of the vodka maker's apparent delay in following up?

Precedent from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs Washington, lays out a clear duty for a trademark owner to act diligently once it has sent a cease and desist letter that has become unresolved.

Otherwise, the trademark owner might face the possibility that its delay in protecting its rights may rise to the level of being "estopped by laches."  The doctrine is sometimes just referred to as "laches," which comes from the French for "laziness."

The Latin phrase "Vigilantibus non dormientibus æquitas subvenit (Equity aids the vigilant, not the sleeping ones (that is, those who sleep on their rights))" is often quoted to help explain the doctrine.

In other words, the vodka maker's delay in pursuing the 2005 matter against the hair salon could have led the former and new owners to reasonably infer that the alcohol beverage company had lost interest in protecting its rights in this instance.

To the extent that the salon owners relied upon that delay to their detriment and suffered prejudice, courts may hold that delay against the trademark owner, not the salon.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had said in Brookfield Communications v. West Coast Entertainment in 1999:

"Although we have applied laches to bar trademark infringement claims, we have done so only where the trademark holder knowingly allowed the infringing mark to be used without objection for a lengthy period of time. See E–Systems, Inc. v. Monitek, Inc., 720 F.2d 604, 607 (9th Cir.1983). In E–Systems, for example, we estopped a claimant who did not file suit until after the allegedly infringing mark had been used for eight years where the claimant had known of the infringing use for at least six years. See id.; see also Carter–Wallace, Inc. v. Procter & Gamble Co.,434 F.2d 794, 803 (9th Cir.1970). We specifically cautioned, however, that “had defendant's encroachment been minimal, or its growth slow and steady, there would be no laches.” E–Systems, 720 F.2d at 607; accord Carter–Wallace, 434 F.2d at 803 n. 4."

In this case, the delay would appear to be from 2005 to 2013:  approximately eight years.  There is no clear evidence of progressive encroachment, as the local hair salon appears to be largely the same as it was in 2005, despite having new management.

Furthermore, Washington's statute of limitations may also apply here, which enforces a three year statute of limitations to trade name disputes.

Consequently, the vodka maker may face a problem if the hair salon simply refuses to change its name, and invokes these doctrines in its defense. 

The lingering problem for the salon, of course, is that estoppel by laches is a defense that can only be asserted in a lengthy court proceeding, after factual discovery has been exchanged.  And invoking such equitable defenses obviously costs time and money, and litigation comes with no guarantees.

In conclusion, had all the parties more clearly resolved their original dispute back in 2005, more costly headaches for all involved might have been avoided.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Harley-Davidson Loses Bid to Dismiss Artist's Case Based on Long Delay

Harley-Davidson has lost an early bid to dismiss a Complaint filed against it by a freelance artist who claims the motorcycle maker used his logos outside of the scope of a license.

Wayne Wm. Peterson, a freelance commercial artist, had produced numerous well-known logos for the Harley-Davidson companies between the mid-1970's and the mid-2000's. 

The famous "LIVE TO RIDE, RIDE TO LIVE" eagle was one of Peterson's creations.

The decision explained that the Court could not rule that Peterson's delay, while admittedly long, constituted an unreasonably long delay barring all relief, on its face.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), whenever a Defendant moves to dismiss a Complaint for failure to even state a claim, all the facts specifically plead in the Complaint are assumed to be true, and all reasonable inferences in the Complaint are construed in the Plaintiff's favor.

Harley-Davidson had argued that, even viewed in this favorable light, the Plaintiff's long delay in bringing suit constituted a disabling estoppel by laches, and violated a statute of limitations that should be applied to his copyright claims for conduct occurring before 2009.

However, the District Court stated that any dismissal would not be warranted solely on the basis of the Complaint alone, in the absence of the parties conducting discovery, because laches is an affirmative defense that Harley-Davidson bears the burden of proving.

Harley-Davidson is now free to develop a full record through discovery to establish the proposition that the Plaintiff's long delay was indeed inexcusable and caused it prejudice.