Claim Construction and Functional Elements in Design Patents
On March 9, 2010, the Federal Circuit decided David A. Richardson v. Stanley Works, Inc. (2009-1354) and addressed the manner in which functional elements of a design patent should be addressed in claim construction and infringement of design patents. The patented design and a representative drawing of the accused "fubar" product are illustrated above. The district court construed Richardson's design patent by noting that what was claimed was that "shown and described in the '167 patent." The district court then continued by identifying those elements that were ornamental and excluding those elements that were deemed functional. Having so construed the claim, the district court held that the accused "fubar" did not infringe Richardson's design patent.
The Federal Circuit affirmed. With respect to claim construction, the Federal Circuit rejected the Richardson's position that Egyptian Goddess effectively overruled cases such as OddzOn Prods. v. Just Toys, Inc., 122 F.3d 1396 (Fed. Cir. 1997) where the court held that "[w]here a design contains both functional and non-functional elements, the scope of the claim must be construed in order to identify the non-functional aspects of the design as shown in the patent." The court further stated that "[a] claim to a design containing numerous functional elements, such as here, necessarily mandates a narrow construction." The court went on to discount the contribution of a myriad of functional elements in the claimed design and agreed with the district court's conclusion that "[f]rom the perspective of an ordinary observer familiar with the prior art, the overall visual effect of the Fubar is significantly different from the Stepclaw [patented design]." From this ordinary observer's point of view, this holding had way more analysis than was needed to affirm - the two designs shown above are just too different.
Invalidity of Design Patents
On December 17, 2009, the court decided International Seaway Trading Corp. v. Walgreens Corp. (2009-1237), and held that the test for anticipation of a design patent is the same as the test for infringement, which is the "ordinary observer" test. The point of novelty test, abolished from the infringement analysis in Egyptian Goddess, is now a thing of the past in the validity context as well. As a result, a piece of prior art need not be exact to anticipate a design patent claim, it must only satisfy the standards of the "ordinary observer" test. "Just as 'minor differences between a patented design and an accused article's design cannot, and shall not, prevent a finding of infringement,' [cite omitted] so too minor differences cannot prevent a finding of anticipation."
Although dicta, the International Seaway court also discussed the test for obviousness of design patents. Here, the court stated that '[f]or design patents, the role of one skilled in the art in the obviousness context lies only in determining whether to combine earlier references to arrive at a single piece of art for comparison with the potential design or to modify a single prior art reference. Once that piece of prior art has been constructed, obviousness, like anticipation, requires application of the ordinary observer test, not the view of one skilled in the art." This sounds like something new. Indeed, in setting out this proposition, the court did not cite any precedent. Further, the "ordinary observer" test in this context may be viewed as inconsistent with the language of 35 U.S.C. 103(a) which states that a "patent may not be obtained though the invention is not identically disclosed or described as set forth in section 102 of this title, if the differences between the subject matter sought to be patented and the prior art are such that the subject matter as a whole would have been obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art to which said subject matter pertains." As noted above, the discussion regarding obviousness is properly viewed as dicta. It will be interesting to see how the law of obviousness of design patent claims develops in future cases, or if it become essentially moot in view of the broader play that the "ordinary observer" gives to the anticipation analysis.
The subject matter in Int'l Seaway was a design for foam clogs. The Federal Circuit held that the district court incorrectly omitted certain features (the insole design illustrated above) from its validity analysis, based on whether those features would be visible during "normal use." The Federal Circuit held that "normal use should not be limited to only one phase or portion of the normal use lifetime of an accused product," such as the time when a shoe is being worn. Instead, "normal use in the design patent context extends form the completion of manufacture or assembly until the ultimate destruction, loss, or disappearance of the article." Noting that the insole design depicted in the patent would be visible at various points in the life cycle of the article, the Federal Circuit found that it was an error for the district court to ignore these features in the validity analysis simply because they were not visible when the shoe was being worn. The court remanded for the district court "for further proceedings on the limited issue of whether the differences in the insole patterns between the prior (Crocs) are and the patented designs bar a finding of anticipation or obviousness." This remand order is somewhat troubling. As noted in J. Clevenger's dissent, "the ordinary observer test requires assessment of the designs as a whole." "[T]he differences in the inner sole designs must be appreciated in conjunction with all of the design differences." J. Clevenger aptly concludes that "[p]artial judgments of anticipation on segments of a design prohibit assessment of designs as a whole, in violation of long-standing law... ." Although preaching a "design as a whole" analysis, the majority's holding and remand order is clearly fostering an approach that will encourage a district court's "dissection of a design as a whole into its component pieces."
Claim Construction and Domestic Industry for Design Patents
On February 24, 2010, the Federal Circuit issued its opinion in Crocs, Inc. v. Int'l Trade Commission (2008-1596). In this case, the court reversed ITC determinations of no infringement and no domestic industry of Crocs' design patent. Despite earlier warnings from the Federal Circuit that construing a design patent claim in words, rather than by simple reference to the figures, was a risky proposition, the ITC issued a narrow claim construction that focused on areas of difference between the claimed design and the accused product. The Federal Circuit criticized the commission’s "concentration on small differences in isolation distracted from the overall impression of the claimed ornamental features." Instead, "[t]he proper construction requires a side-by-side view of the drawings of the [patent design] and the accused products." Despite some obvious differences apparent (to me at least) in some to these comparisons, the court found that "these side-by-side comparisons...suggest that an ordinary observer, familiar with the prior art designs would be deceived into believing the accused products are the same as the patented design." Unfortunately, the Federal Circuit opinion does not reference the "prior art designs," so it is not clear how to evaluate the differences between the claimed design and the accused products. (An example of the images shown in the Federal Circuit opinion are shown below in the first two images (side view). The top view illustrated below as compared with Fig. 6 of the patent where not part of the Federal Circuit's side-by-side comparison. I don't know that I would be deceived here, but I suppose that reasonable "ordinary observers" are free to differ.)