by Dennis Crouch
The Supreme Court has granted SCA Hygeine’s petition for writ of certiorari with merits briefing over the summer and a likely fall 2016 hearing on the question:
Whether and to what extent the defense of laches may bar a claim for patent infringement brought within the Patent Act’s six-year statutory limitations period, 35 U.S.C. § 286.
SCA Hygiene Products Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Products, LLC, Supreme Court Docket No. 15-927 (2016). This case is another patent-copyright parallel and follows the Supreme Court’s 2014 copyright laches case in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 134 S. Ct. 1962 (2014). In Petrella, the Supreme Court held that laches cannot be used to further shorten the three-year copyright limitations period set forth in 17 U.S.C. § 507(b). Following Petrella, however, the Federal Circuit rejected the copyright parallels and instead embraced patent law exceptionalism — holding en banc that laches remained a viable defense and can bar infringement claims accruing within the six-year limitations period of 35 U.S.C. § 286. (6-5 holding).
In both patent and copyright cases the issue of laches arises more often than you might think because of the legal treatment of “ongoing” infringement. Each infringing act is seen as a new act of infringement. Thus, the six-year limits period starts anew each time a new copy of the infringing product is made, sold, or used. If someone has been making an infringing product for the past 10 years, the statute would let the patentee them reach back 6 years for damages. Courts often see that result as as problematic when the patentee sits on its rights for so long (and since most civil claims have a shorter period of limitations) and thus apply the laches doctrine to limit collection of back damages even when within the six-year period.
Look for the court to reverse the Federal Circuit’s ruling based upon the historic interplay between equity and law. As in Petrella, I expect that the court will base its decision on the rule that that laches is a defense to equitable relief but does not limit the recovery of legal damages. Although Petrella was 6-3, I expect that the dissenters will see the value in linking patent and copyright regimes.
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The court also granted certiorari in Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands – that case focuses on the functionality doctrine in copyright law. In particular focusing on copyrightability of the stripes and chevrons integrated into cheerleader uniforms. Question presented: What is the appropriate test to determine when a feature of a useful article is protectable under § 101 of the Copyright Act?
The petition outlines the ten-different-tests that folks use to determine whether the work of authorship is capable of being “identified separately from, and … existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.”