Supreme Court Cert: Laches (in Patent Cases) and Copyrightable Subject Matter to Be Reviewed
The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari to review a patent case on the law of laches. SCA Hygiene Products v. First Quality Baby Products, Case No. 15-927 (Supr. Ct., May 2, 2016).
In its cert petition, SCA argued that the en banc decision of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit conflicts with the Supreme Court’s decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (IP Update, Vol. 17, No. 5) that, under the Copyright Act, laches cannot bar damages claims brought within a statutory limitations period, even though the initial violation may have occurred years earlier. SCA also argued that the Federal Circuit observes a presumption in favor of laches that is inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent.
The question presented is: Can the defense of laches bar a claim for patent infringement brought within the Patent Act’s six-year statutory limitations period (35 USC § 286), and if so, to what extent?
In SCA, the Federal Circuit granted en banc review to determine if the Supreme Court’s Petrella decision required a change to the law of laches in patent cases (IP Update, Vol. 18, No. 10). In a 6–5 decision, the Federal Circuit held that in terms of patent infringement actions, Petrella did not require a change in the laches rule set out by the court in 1992 in A.C. Aukerman v. R.L. Chaides Constr. Rather, the en banc Court explained that notwithstanding the provisions of § 286, Congress codified the laches defense in § 282 when it included an unenforceability defense in that statute. Thus, the Court found that laches could bar a damages claim even for acts occurring within the six-year period of § 286.
The Federal Circuit also held, however, that Petrella requires a change in the Aukerman rule that only pre-suit damages may be barred by laches. The Court explained that the availability of injunctive relief or ongoing royalties now depends on an analysis of the circumstances of the delay under the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in eBay, Inc. v. MercExchange (IP Update, Vol. 9, No. 5).
Copyrightable Subject Matter
The Supreme Court also granted certiorari in a copyright case arising from the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and presenting the issue of copyrightability of cheerleader uniforms. Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., Case No. 15-866 (Supr. Ct., May 2, 2016).
The question presented is: What is the appropriate test to determine when a feature of a useful article is protectable under § 101 of the Copyright Act?
In Star, a split panel of the Sixth Circuit held that the arrangement of colors, stripes, chevrons, zigzags and other designs on a cheerleading uniform are copyrightable, separate from utilitarian aspects of the uniform itself (IP Update, Vol. 18, No. 9). The Court rejected the argument that the pictorial, graphic or sculptural features are simply performing a decorative function (which is itself a “utilitarian aspect of an article”) and are therefore not separable from the utilitarian aspects of the cheerleading uniform. The dissent argued that the case turned on how “function” is defined (i.e., in terms of the decorations in issue), which would determine whether the designs were copyrightable.