The United States Supreme Court announced today that laches, an affirmative defense based on an injured party’s delay in bringing suit, may not bar patent infringement damages within the six-year period under § 286 of the Patent Act. The Court’s decision in SCA Hygiene Products Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Products, LLC reversed the Federal Circuit’s 2015 en banc decision, which held that laches may limit patent infringement damages even during the six-year limitations period.
Reversing the Federal Circuit, the Court held that § 286 establishes a statute of limitations for patent infringement claims such that “a patentee may recover damages for any infringement committed within six years of the filing of the claim.” According to the Court, “applying laches within a limitations period specified by Congress would give judges a ‘legislation-overriding’ role that is beyond the Judiciary’s power.” This decision brings patent law in line with the Court’s recent copyright decision, Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., in which the Court held that laches may not bar claims for copyright infringement that are filed within the three-year copyright statute of limitations.
Notably, the Supreme Court specifically rejected arguments that the common law existing in 1952—when Congress enacted the Patent Act—included laches as a defense to patent infringement. Over Justice Breyer’s dissent, the majority concluded that the handful of pre-1952 cases cited were insufficient to show that laches as a defense to patent infringement had garnered a national consensus among lower courts.
In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, alleged infringers may not look to laches as a defense to patent infringement damages that accrue within the six-year period set forth in § 286. But, as the Court recognized for First Quality, “the doctrine of equitable estoppel” may provide some protection, for example, against “unscrupulous patentees inducing potential targets of infringement suits to invest in the production of arguably infringing products.”