Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Federal "Discovery" Rule: Can you sue for infringements occuring more than three years ago?

In Graham v. Haughey, --- F.3d ---, 2009 WL 1564223 (3d Cir. June 5, 2009), the Third Circuit considered the question of whether a victim of copyright infringement may sue for infringements that occurred over three years prior to the commencement of the lawsuit.

At issue is the federal "discovery" rule for accrual of an action versus the "injury" rule. I discuss this distinction in Chapter 5 of my Copyright Litigation Handbook (West 4th Ed. 2009). I was pleased to see that the Third Circuit discussed the cases that I had cited on this conflict (by the way, this fourth edition of Copyright Litigation Handbook just shipped last week).

The question is whether a cause of action for copyright infringement "accrues" when the infringement takes place (the "injury" rule) or whether it accrues when the victim, exercising reasonable diligence, discovers the infringement (the "discovery" rule). Most circuits have ruled that the federal discovery rule applies. But some district courts in the Second Circuit, relying on a powerfully-reasoned decision by Judge Kaplan in Auscape Intern. v. National Geographic Soc., 409 F. Supp.2d 235 (S.D.N.Y. 2004), have applied the "injury" rule.

To illustrate: under the injury rule, a court would either dismiss or grant summary judgment on a pleading that alleged infringements over three years prior to the action being filed.

Under the discovery rule, a court would permit equitable defenses such as tolling for fraudulent concealment and factfinding to determine whether a plaintiff could have, did, or should have discovered infringements over three years old prior to filing suit.

These rules relate to "accrual" of the action. The statute of limitations is always three years under 17 U.S.C. 507(b).

Graham v. Haughey determined that the "discovery" rule applies and that the plaintiff could sue on infringements that occurred over three years prior to the commencement of the action. Graham v. Haughey digs into the legislative history and consists of a point-by-point refutation of the Auscape decision. It also has an excellent discussion of issues relating to burdens of proof on damages, the nexus neccessary for damages to be attributable to copyright infringement, and the role of a judge in reviewing a jury verdict of copyright infringement.

Graham's facts are interesting because the infringement was committed by an ex-employee. The new employee used the infringing documents to generate millions in profits, but the publications were in proposals kept confidential by both the infringer and the recipient of the proposals for many years. After these secret transactions were finally revealed, the copyright owner sued and obtained a jury verdict in excess of $16 million.

This case involved an ex-employee breaching a contract not to retain or use copyrighted materials, so is an important cautionary tale for both new employers who don't want millions in liabilities and old employers who wish to protect their materials.

This is the odd case where a "publication" was not "public".

The Third Circuit remanded on apportionment issues.

Graham's counsel David J. Wolfsohn of Philadelphia's Woodcock Washburn (who was successful on the appeal and is pictured above) informs me that the matter is in abeyance pending Haughey's cert petition (due Sept 3). Haughey was represented by Floyd Abrams of Cahill Gordon & Reindell.

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