IP Decisions Abound At The Supreme Court In Spring 2014


After leaving the realm of intellectual property law alone for decades, and allowing the Federal Circuit 25 years of mostly undisturbed jurisprudence, the United States Supreme Court has strongly reestablished its presence over the past eight years. This year especially, the Court will hear a wide array of patent, trademark and copyright cases, setting the stage for 2014 to be a banner year for Supreme Court IP decisions. Now, more than ever, successful and effective IP practice will require close observance of the high court's activity. To help, a synopsis follows of each case decided, or to-be-decided, in 2014.


On January 21, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Petrella v. MGM, a copyright infringement action involving 1980 boxing movie, "Raging Bull." In its forthcoming opinion, the Supreme Court will address the applicability of laches to copyright infringement claims brought within the statute of limitations.

Laches is an equitable defense that bars a plaintiff's unreasonably delayed claims. In Petrella, the daughter and heir of screenwriter Frank Petrella sued Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) in 2009, alleging that the "Raging Bull" film constituted an unauthorized exploitation of Petrella's derivative rights.

Although Petrella was asserting her rights nearly 30 years after MGM released the film, she sought damages only for acts of infringement occurring within the three-year statute of limitations set forth in the Copyright Act, i.e., from 2006 to the filing of her complaint.

Nonetheless, the Central District of California, and subsequently the Ninth Circuit, held that Petrella's claim was barred by laches. Both courts agreed that Petrella's delay was unreasonable, and that the delay prejudiced the defendants, both from a commercial and evidentiary standpoint.

At oral arguments in January, the Justices actively debated Congress' intended purpose for the three-year statute of limitations provision, and whether Congress' purpose was distinct from the underlying policy objectives of laches. Furthermore, the Court considered, if laches and the statute of limitations can in fact coexist, should laches bar the plaintiff from obtaining injunctive relief, damages or both?

The high court appeared divided, reflecting a stark division that currently exists among federal appellate courts: the Fourth Circuit completely bars defendants from asserting laches within the statute of limitations; the Eleventh Circuit allows laches during the statutory period only for retrospective (not prospective) relief; the Second Circuit allows laches only for equitable (not legal) relief; and the Ninth Circuit allows laches without restriction.

The decision, expected in June, is highly anticipated amongst copyright owners, particularly those in the film and music industries, where copyright owners often assert their rights years after the alleged infringement.


On January 22, the Supreme Court began its year by unanimously reversing the Federal Circuit in Medtronic v. Mirowski Family Ventures. The high court held that the burden of proving infringement remains on the patent owner, even when a licensee seeks a declaratory judgment of noninfringement. The decision, authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, substantially benefits patent licensees, who, upon showing declaratory standing, may now force the licensor to prove that a licensed patent covers the licensee's products, and do so at a time and forum of the licensee's choosing.

As a general rule, the patentee always carries the burden of proving infringement; but at the case below, the Federal Circuit carved out an exception in the limited circumstances where a licensee files declaratory judgment against its licensor. In those cases, the three-judge panel held, the licensee must prove noninfringement, rather than the patentee proving infringement.

The Supreme Court quickly rejected the Federal Circuit's burden shift, first taking a statutory approach and pointing out that the Declaratory Judgment Act has only procedural, not substantive, impact. The burden of proof is a substantive matter, and a burden shift a substantive change, and thus, the burden shift was legal error.

The Court also rejected the Federal Circuit on policy grounds, opining that the new exception would cause post-litigation uncertainty about the scope of the litigated patent. If the declaratory judgment had a different burden than its corresponding coercive action, the Court explained, the declaratory judgment action would have no claim preclusive effect over the later action. Instead, the parties would be forced to relitigate the entire infringement allegation, and the declaratory judgment action would fail to achieve its intended purpose of providing an "immediate and definitive determination of the legal rights of the parties."

The respondents expressed concerns that, without the Federal Circuit's exception, licensees could easily "force the patentee into full-blown patent infringement litigation . . . at [their] sole discretion." The Court countered that those circumstances are...

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