Anne Hemenway, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
In SCA Hygiene Products Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Products, LLC, 137 S. Ct. 954 (2017), the United States Supreme Court held that the defense of laches is not proper in a patent infringement case when suit is brought within the six-year statute of limitations period for patent infringement cases, set forth in 35 U.S.C. § 286. This decision abrogated decisions in numerous federal circuit courts which allowed the laches defense.
Under federal law, damages are limited in patent infringement cases by the statute of limitations set forth in § 286 to cover only infringement that occurred within the six-year period prior to the filing of the complaint. This six-year period is counted backward from the filing of the complaint, not forward to the time of the patent infringement event.
A laches defense is considered to be an equitable defense used to limit damages when a suit is filed after an unwarranted delay. In SCA Hygiene Products Aktiebolag, First Quality Baby Products argued that the Federal Circuit properly recognized that the laches defense was necessary, notwithstanding § 286, to protect alleged infringers who are prejudiced by a patent owner's unnecessary delay in bringing suit. Because the Patent Act had a statutory limit to the award of damages, the Supreme Court held that a laches defense would override this statutory limit imposed by Congress.
The Supreme Court was undoubtedly guided by its earlier decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Myer, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1962 (2014), which precluded the defense of laches in copyright law. The Copyright Act has a three-year limitation period for damages. While recognizing the differences between patent law and copyright law, the Court found no obvious reason to make a special rule for patent law on the issue of laches and damages.