A question often arises – does an owner of an intellectual property right have the duty to enforce it? While the answer is no, the failure to do so in the face of known infringement can damage and limit the ability to enforce the right in the future. This legal doctrine – laches – borrows from the statute of limitations – which prevents a claim from being filed if the event giving rise to the claim occurred a distance in the past. This doctrine applies differently in each area of intellectual property, but is most critical, and hardest to determine, in trademark cases.
In trademark cases, the elements in the 4th Circuit (and most circuits) are as follows: “In determining whether laches operates as a defense to a trademark infringement claim, we consider at least the following factors: (1) whether the owner of the mark knew of the infringing use; (2) whether the owner’s delay in challenging the infringement of the mark was inexcusable or unreasonable; and (3) whether the infringing user has been unduly prejudiced by the owner’s delay.” Ray Communications v. Clear Channel, 4th Cir Ct (March 8, 2012).
“[I]n the laches context, “(1) delay is measured from the time at which the owner knew of an infringing use sufficient to require legal action; and (2) legal action is not required until there is a real likelihood of confusion.” See What-A-Burger of Virginia, Inc. v. Whataburger, Inc. of Corpus Christi, Texas, 357 F.3d 441, 451 (4th Cir. 2004).
The mark at issue in Ray Communications is AGRINET for “educational services rendered through the medium of radio; namely, a program of interest to farmers.” The the defendant used similar marks such as “OKLAHOMA AGRINET” for agricultural news programming on the air and in marketing. The defendant had been using the potentially infringing marks for many years – plaintiff filed its case in 2008, but the use of the defendant commenced in the late 70’s and early 80’s – about 20 years prior to the filing date of the complaint.
While this case reversed the district court’s decision in favor of the defendant – largely because the record was not developed adequately to establish such relief, the case demonstrates the complexity of determining when and how to enforce a trademark. For example, there was evidence that the defendant had changed certain marks, and that it had used some of the marks under license from the plaintiff – facts not considered in the lower court.
Trademark enforcement is important to maintain the trademark strength, but the failure to enforce it in some cases, will not prevent later enforcement as the infringement looms large.