Big Week For IP In The Supreme Court
While the political world roils, the Supreme Court issued two major IP law decisions this week.
In SCA Hygiene Products v. First Quality Baby Products, the Court, in an opinion by Justice Alito, held that the equitable doctrine of laches could not be asserted as a defense in patent cases. Laches is an old doctrine under which, in the absence of a statute of limitations, a defendant can argue that the plaintiff sat on its rights too long before filing suit, and so should not be allowed to recover for any past harm. Because the U.S. patent laws do contain a statute of limitations, the high court concluded that the defense of laches was not available to accused infringers. As the lone dissenter, Justice Breyer argued that the doctrine had been applied for over a century to plug a hole in the patent statute, and would have allowed the defense to remain viable. In reaching this conclusion, the majority followed the logic it had recently applied to the context of copyright law in deciding the same issue.
On the heels of this opinion, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands, an important copyright case. The question posed by this case was whether artistic features of a practical item—here, cheerleader uniforms—could be protected by copyright. The majority opinion of Justice Thomas held that an “artistic feature” of a “useful article” can be protected by copyright if it (1) can be perceived as a two or three–dimensional work of art apart from the underlying article; and (2) would be protectable if a separate work. In this instance, decals on the uniforms passed the test, and were subject to copyright protection. Justice Ginsburg concurred in the result, and Justices Breyer and Kennedy dissented.
Finally, on Monday, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods Group Brands, a case with the potential to shut the doors on patent forum–shopping. In its write–up of the case today, “High–Court Case to Challenge Jurisdiction ‘Shopping’ in Patent Suits, the Wall Street Journal quoted IP Wise’s Peter Brann on the potentially “dramatic effect” on patent troll litigation of a TC Heartland victory.