The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to review two cases that involve important IP questions in the Court’s fall 2016 session. One case will consider whether to modify or do away with the long-standing defense of laches in patent infringement cases. The other case will address the extent to which apparel can be protected by copyright.
The doctrine of laches is a defense to patent infringement that protects accused infringers if (1) the patent holder unreasonably delayed in filing the infringement lawsuit, and (2) the accused infringer was materially prejudiced by the delay. If a patentee delays bringing suit for more than six years after the date the patentee knew or should have known of the alleged infringer’s activity, laches may be presumed. In SCA Hygiene Products Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Products, LLC, et al. (Fed. Cir. Sept. 18, 2015), the accused infringer argued that a 2014 Supreme Court decision that abolished laches as a defense in copyright cases should also apply to patent cases. The Federal Circuit disagreed and held that the defense of laches is still available in patent infringement cases. The Supreme Court will now resolve this dispute and determine whether the reasoning of its previous decision under copyright law equally applies to patents.
In the second case, the Court will address the extent to which copyright law covers apparel designs. In Varsity Brands Inc. v. Star Athletica, LLC (Sixth Cir. 2015), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that several copyright registrations on cheerleader uniform designs were valid. The designs included various stripes and chevrons, and the Sixth Circuit rejected an argument that those designs were functional and found that the designs were “’pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works’ and not uncopyrightable ‘useful articles.’” The Supreme Court will now address the question: “What is the appropriate test to determine when a feature of a useful article is protectable under § 101 of the Copyright Act?”
However, the Supreme Court also denied petitions in several other IP-related cases. Notably, so far the Court has denied at least seven petitions asking for clarity of the boundaries of patent-eligibility in view of the Court’s previous decisions in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l and Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc.. Each of those decisions addressed the scope of Section 101 of the Patent Act, and each decision has resulted in confusion and inconsistency in lower court decisions and USPTO actions that have attempted to apply those decision.