“When a patent holder unfairly surprises a defendant by filing an unreasonably delayed patent infringement action, the courts respond appropriately when they reduce the infringement damages otherwise available to the plaintiff. This rule against unreasonable delay protects the business community from patent trolls.”
—Richard Samp, WLF Chief Counsel
WASHINGTON, DC—Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) today urged the U.S. Supreme Court to resist calls to overturn the unanimous view of the federal appeals courts that patent infringement defendants ought to be permitted to assert laches as a defense to unreasonably delayed infringement lawsuits. In its amicus curiae brief in SCA Hygiene Products v. First Quality Baby Products, WLF argues that a decision overturning the lower courts’ decades-long interpretation of the Patent Act of 1952 would unnecessarily upset reasonable expectations of firms that have come to rely on the current understanding.
Federal patent law includes a statute that explicitly bars a patent holder from recovering damages for patent infringement that occurred more than six years before the date on which suit was filed. The issue in this case is whether alleged infringers may also seek to bar damages for infringement that occurred within the six-year window, by invoking a defense known as laches. That defense limits the award of damages otherwise available, when a plaintiff’s unreasonable delay in filing suit has unfairly prejudiced the defendant.
WLF argues that when Congress adopted the Patent Act of 1952, it explicitly ratified a common-law tradition—dating from the late-Nineteenth century—of recognizing laches as a defense to patent-infringement damages. It also argues that Congress should be deemed to have accepted post-1952 appeals-court decisions that have unanimously upheld the availability of a laches defense, because it has repeatedly amended the patent law throughout the past 65 years without ever revising the statutory provision that lower courts have cited as their basis for recognizing a laches defense.
This case involves a manufacturer of protective underwear whose products allegedly infringe a design patent. The patentee waited many years before filing its infringement suit and gave no hint that a suit was in the offing. During the period of delay, the defendant invested heavily in the allegedly infringing product line and increased production eight-fold.
After filing its brief, WLF issued the following statement by Chief Counsel Richard Samp: “When a patent holder unfairly surprises a defendant by filing an unreasonably delayed patent infringement action, the courts respond appropriately when they reduce the infringement damages otherwise available to the plaintiff. This rule against unreasonable delay protects the business community from patent trolls. The rule does not prevent enforcement of the patent; it merely reduces the size of the damage award otherwise available to the patentee.”
WLF is a public interest law firm and policy center that regularly litigates in support of civil justice reform, to ensure that unwarranted lawsuits do not drive up costs for all consumers.