In Titan Tire, the Federal Circuit affirmed the trial court’s denial of a preliminary injunction (“PI”) in a design patent case. (www.cafc.uscourts.gov/opinions/08-1078.pdf) The opinion begins with a recitation of the four factors required to obtain a preliminary injunction which “are of longstanding and universal applicability.” That is, the movant “must establish  that he is likely to succeed on the merits,  that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief,  that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and  that an injunction is in the public interest.” Although a movant must satisfy all four factors in every case, the focus of Titan Tire was on the first factor. More particularly, the opinion provides an in-depth discussion regarding the respective evidentiary and procedural burdens for establishing (or defeating) a showing that a patent holder “is likely to succeed on the merits” in the face of a validity challenge to the asserted patent. Although Titan Tire is a design patent case, the discussion with respect to the burdens encountered in a PI motion are equally applicable to utility cases as well.
The court begins its analysis with the truism that “the patentee seeking a preliminary injunction in a patent infringement suit must show that it will likely prove infringement, and that it will likely withstand challenges, if any, to the validity of the patent.” When an alleged infringer is challenging patent validity in its defense of a PI, “the burden is on the challenger to come forward with evidence of invalidity, just as it would be at trial.” (Well, almost “as it would be at trial.” As discussed below, the accused infringer does not need to present “clear and convincing” evidence of invalidity to defeat a motion for a preliminary injunction.) After the accused infringer presents some evidence sufficient “to persuade the trial court that the patent is invalid, at this stage it is the patentee, the movant, who must persuade the court that, despite the challenge presented to validity, the patentee nevertheless is likely to succeed at trial on the validity issue.” In this context, “[w]hile it is not the patentee’s burden to prove validity, the patentee must show that the alleged infringer’s defense lacks substantial merit.”
How much evidence does an accused infringer need to present for a successful invalidity challenge during a preliminary injunction hearing? Clearly, the accused infringer needs to come forward with enough evidence (something more than a “mere scintilla”) to persuade the court that its invalidity defense has “substantial merit.” The court unequivocally stated, however, that “the alleged infringer at the preliminary injunction stage does not need to prove invalidity by the ‘clear and convincing’ standard that will be imposed at trial on the merits.” Instead, this heightened evidentiary burden is merely “a consideration for the judge to take into account in assessing the challenger’s case at the preliminary injunction stage.”
Obviousness of Design Patents
After discussing the standard for determining whether an invalidity defense is sufficient to defeat a PI motion, the court continued with a discussion of the standard for determining invalidity of a design patent.
Obviousness for design patents, like utility patents, is governed by 35 U.S.C. 103. When combining multiple references for an obviousness defense, the inquiry is “whether one of ordinary skill would have combined the teachings of the prior art to create the same overall visual appearance as the claimed design.” As discussed in Titan Tire, this typically involves identifying a “primary reference;” that is “something in existence, the design characteristics of which are basically the same as the claimed design.” Then, “other ‘secondary’ references ‘may be used to modify it to create a design that has the same overall visual appearance as the claimed design.’” Finally, to properly combine the references, the "secondary references must be 'so related [to the primary reference] that the appearance of certain ornamental features in one would suggest the application of those features to the other.'" Citations omitted. After reviewing this standard, the court reviewed the prior art of record and affirmed the district court’s holding that the accused infringer's invalidity defense had sufficient merit to defeat the PI.
Although dicta, the court pointed out that current test for obviousness of design patents may have similar flaws as the “point of novelty” test for infringement that was eliminated by the Federal Circuit's en banc decision is Egyptian Goddess. The court did not, however, take the opportunity to take on this issue. Instead, it simply pointed out that gyptian Goddess expressly states that “it is not a test for determining invalidity, but is designed solely as a test of infringement.” After noting this limitation, the Titan Tire court simply warns that “it is not clear to what extent, if any, the doctrine applicable to obviousness should be modified to conform to the approach adopted by this court in Egyptian Goddess.”
Another interesting, but unanswered question, is the role of the Supreme Court’s decision in KSR in determining obviousness in the context of design patents. In particular, Titan Tire objected to the trial court’s reference to the passage in KSR that the “predictable use of prior art elements according to their established functions” would be indicative of obviousness since, it argued, design patents do not have functional elements. The Federal Circuit stated that “it is not obvious that the Supreme Court necessarily intended to exclude design patents from the reach of KSR,” but found that this question need not be resolved to dispose of the present case.
What are the take aways from Titan Tire?
- Preliminary injunctions represent extraordinary relief and are difficult to obtain. (Of course, we new that already). The Federal Circuit’s discussion in Titan Tire is likely to make it easier to defeat a PI motion based on a reasonably presented invalidity defense.
- The ordinary observer test of Egyptian Goddess does not have any bearing on the validity of design patents. The rational behind eliminating the “point of novelty” test, however, may continue to influence the validity inquiry in the future.
- We should expect to see KSR-based arguments raised more often in the context of design patents.