On March 21, 2017, the US Supreme Court, in a 7-1 decision in SCA Hygiene Products Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Products, LLC, Case No. 15-927, held that the equitable defense of laches no longer can be used as a defense to a claim of patent infringement. Justice Alito delivered the majority opinion, with Justice Breyer dissenting.
Laches is an equitable doctrine that bars a patent owner’s claim for damages in a patent infringement lawsuit if the patent owner waits an unreasonable amount of time before bringing suit against the accused infringer and that delay prejudices the accused infringer’s defense. This defense has existed for decades and its contours were defined by the Federal Circuit in its A.C. Aukerman Co. v. R. L. Chaides Construction Co., 960 F.2d 1020 (Fed. Cir. 1992) (en banc) decision.
However, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Petralla v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 572 U.S. ___ (2014) decision that held that laches cannot bar a claim for damages for copyright infringement within the 3-year statute of limitations, the Court decided to address whether laches can still be a defense to a claim for damages for patent infringement.
In considering this, the Court looked to the history of laches-type defenses, and concluded that they exist as a judicially-created defense by courts of equity when there were no statutes of limitation. However, “[w]hen Congress enacts a statute of limitations, it speaks directly to the issue of timeliness and provides a rule for determining whether a claim is timely enough to permit relief.” Therefore, because Congress created a 6-year statute of limitations for patent infringement, courts cannot override that statute of limitations with an equitable laches defense. Accordingly, the Court held that the laches defense is no longer applicable in patent infringement lawsuits.
The dissent and appellee pointed out that the patent statute of limitations is unusual and warrants the continuance of the laches defense. The limitations period for a patent infringement claim does not begin to accrue from the point of infringement or the point at which a patent owner has a “complete and present cause of action.” Rather, the limitations period works backwards from the time of the filing of the lawsuit–it only limits a patent owner’s ability to collect damages to the period 6 years before the filing of the lawsuit. In other words, it does not matter if the patent owner knows of the infringement for a period longer than the limitations period (e.g., 10 years ago), but chooses not to file suit until today. Under the patent statute, the patent owner can still bring suit, but it will only be limited to damages occurring in the prior 6 years. This statute of limitations is unlike virtually every other statute of limitations, which would bar such an untimely claim. The majority rejected this distinction out of hand without a clear explanation.
The dissent also pointed out that the majority’s decision creates a significant disincentive for patent owners (especially ones that do not compete with the accused infringer) to act quickly upon learning of infringement. Without the laches defense, a patent owner can sit back and wait until the time at which the most damages have occurred and then file suit. Previously, such a tactic would have run a significant risk that a court might uphold a laches defense and bar any recovery.
The dissent also argued that the majority’s reliance on Petralla is not warranted because of the significant differences between copyright and patent law. With copyrights, the owner must prove copying, whereas patent infringement is a strict liability offense. Therefore, delay will tend to work to the disadvantage of a copyright owner because the evidence of copying may tend to fade with time. On the other hand, a patent owner does not have to prove copying, so the passage of time tends to work in the patent owner’s favor. For example, evidence of prior art or the state of the art at the time of the patent application may become lost with time, which would make it harder for an accused infringer to successfully argue that the patented invention was obvious or anticipated.
As a practical matter, the laches defense was not often successful for accused infringers, but it created an important check against patent owners and encouraged them to timely bring lawsuits when they believed that their patent rights were infringed. It will be interesting to see how patent owners behave now that this check has been eliminated.