Sitback, Make the Popcorn, and Watch, Patent Owners, You Have Six Years to Bring Your Infringement Claim

In SCA Hugiene Products Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Products, LLC, [15–927] (March 21, 2017), the Supreme Court reversed the Federal Circuit and held that laches cannot be invoked as a defense against a claim for damages brought within 35 U.S.C. §286’s six-year limitations period.

The Supreme Court followed the reasoning in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., where it eliminated the laches defense for copyright infringement claims brought within the Copyright Act’s 3-year limitations period.  The Court said that a statute of limitations reflects a Congressional decision that timeliness is better judged by a hard and fast rule instead of a case-specific judicial determination. The Court further said that applying laches within a limitations period specified by Congress would give judges a “legislation-overriding” role that exceeds the Judiciary’s power.

Although the Copyright Statute 17 U.S.C. §507(b) is worded as a true statute of limitations, requiring action “within three years after the claim accrued,” while the Patent Statute 35 U.S.C. §286 is a damages limitation, barring recovery of damages “more than six years prior to the filing of the complaint,” the Supreme Court found the statutes similar enough to apply the reasoning of Petrella.

The Supreme Court also rejected the Federal Circuit’s interpretation of 35 U.S.C. §282 as retaining a laches defense to patent infringement.

In closing, the Supreme Court indicated that the Doctrine of Equitable Estoppel may still be available, and in fact may apply to SCA Hugiene Products’ claims, but that laches cannot be interposed as a defense against damages where the infringement occurred within the period prescribed by §286.