Setting the Stage for another Fight of the Soul of Patent Law

Patent-WarsBy Don Wang

On September 18, 2015, the Federal Circuit, sitting en banc, rendered another divisive decision, SCA Hygiene Products AB v. First Quality Baby Products. In the very first paragraph of the dissent opinion, Judge Hughes harshly states, “[p]atent law is governed by the same common-law principles, methods of statutory interpretation, and procedural rules as other areas of civil litigation. Today, the majority adopts a patent-specific approach to the equitable doctrine of laches. In doing so, the majority overlooks Congress’ intent and Supreme Court precedent . . .” Ouch!

The Supreme Court’s 2014 “Raging Bull” copyright decision, Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc, prompted the issue. In that case, the Supreme Court eliminated the “judicially-created laches defense [in copyright cases] because Congress, through a statute of limitations, ha[d] already spoken on the timeliness of copyright infringement claims.” The Patent Act similarly provides a six-year rolling limitation period, but Federal Circuit precedent held that the statute of limitations and laches defense can coexist in patent law. Interestingly, the Supreme Court specifically remarked in the Raging Bull case that it had “not had occasion to review the Federal Circuit’s position [that laches can bar past damages in patent law].” Taking the cue from the Supreme Court, SCA Hygiene appealed to the Federal Circuit en banc review and argued that there is no “principled distinction” between the statute of limitations in the Copyright Act and Patent Act. Continue reading

SCOTUS Removes Laches Protection Against Raging Bull

ImageBy Stephanie Olson

On May 19th, the Supreme Court resolved a circuit split in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Court ruled that the doctrine of laches does not bar copyright infringement suits if the suits are brought within the Copyright Act’s three-year rolling statute of limitations, absent extraordinary circumstances.

In reversing the Ninth Circuit, the Court held that laches serves a gap-filling function and should be applied only in the absence of a limitation period. Because the Copyright Act provides a three-year limitation period, laches does not apply to copyright suits, except in extraordinary circumstances. This was not such a case.

In this case, boxing champion Jake LaMotta and his friend Frank Petrella copyrighted a screenplay in 1963 about LaMotta’s boxing career. An MGM subsidiary later acquired the rights. In 1980, MGM released and copyrighted Raging Bull, a film based off of the screenplay. Petrella died in 1981, and his daughter eventually obtained sole ownership of his copyright. She renewed it in 1991 and, in 1998, informed MGM that its exploitation of Raging Bull infringed on her copyright. In 2009, she sued MGM for infringing acts since 2006 pursuant to the separate-accrual rule, which creates a new limitation period for each infringing act. Continue reading