A recent Supreme Court decision may make it easier for patent holders to assert older patents, as the decision significantly restricts the availability of laches (i.e., unreasonable delay) as a defense to a patent infringement claim.
The doctrine of laches allows a court to deny a claim if the plaintiff delayed filing the suit and the delay was unreasonable and prejudicial. The Patent Act also includes a six-year limit on the recovery of damages for patent infringement activities.
Until now, most courts interpreted these two legal doctrines as requiring a patent holder to promptly bring suit upon learning of infringing activity, and in any event no longer than six years from the date that the patent holder places the infringer on notice of the claim. The reason for this is to prevent a patent holder from lying in wait by sending a cease and desist letter but never seeking to resolve the dispute in court.
A recent Supreme Court decision has changed this long-standing interpretation. In SCA Hygiene Products Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Products, LLC (Mar. 21, 2017), the patent holder (SCA) sent a letter accusing First Quality of infringement in 2003. In 2010 — seven years after sending the letter — SCA filed suit against First Quality. First Quality argued that SCA’s claim was time-barred under the doctrine of laches. The district court agreed and dismissed the case. The Federal Circuit affirmed, stating that laches prevents recovery of all damages, including those incurred during the 6-year period prior to filing the suit.
The Supreme Court disagreed, noting that “[l]aches is a gap-filling doctrine, and where there is a statute of limitations, there is no gap to fill.” Because Section 286 of the Patent Act imposes a six-year statute of limitations, the Court found that the Patent Act had no gap to fill: “Laches cannot be interposed as a defense against damages where the infringement occurred within the period prescribed by §286.”
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