Federal Circuit Reverses Design Patent Claim Construction

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at the Pittsburgh law firm of Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. ()

In the wake of the Apple v. Samsung cases, the importance of design patents has become more visible. Whether a product infringes a design patent can sometimes be difficult to determine because design patents only protect the ornamental aspects of a design, and not the functional aspects. The Federal Circuit, in Sport Dimension, Inc. v. The Coleman Company, Inc. (No. 2015-1553) recently considered the interplay between ornamentation and functionality in a design patent.

Background

Coleman sells a variety of outdoor sporting equipment, including personal flotation devices. One of its products,  a flotation device with two arm bands and a torso piece, is protected by US Design Patent No. D623,714.

Flotation DeviceSport Dimension also sells personal flotation devices, including its line of Body Glove products that also have two armbands and a torso section.

Body GloveColeman brought suit against Sport Dimension, alleging infringement of the ‘714 patent.

The trial court adopted Sport Dimension’s claim construction, which expressly excluded the arm bands and side torso tapering as elements of the claim, because functional elements not protected by the patent. Coleman then moved for entry of a judgment of non-infringement in favor of Sport Dimension so that it could appeal the claim construction ruling.

The Federal Circuit reversed the claim construction, vacated the judgment of non-infringement, and remanded.

Analysis

The Federal Circuit began by noting that it is often difficult to use words to describe a design, which is why illustrations are an important part of design patents. Despite the limitations of words, the Court noted that it is often constructive for courts to construe design patents in order to guide the fact finder in determining infringement.

The Court then noted the law of infringement of design patents–a design patent cannot protect purely functional designs, but it can protect designs that are not primarily functional even if certain elements have functional purposes. Thus, design patents can be used with products that have elements that are both functional and non-functional, but the design patent will only protect the non-functional elements that are shown in the patent. Of particular interest to design patent litigators, the Court reviewed the key cases in the design patent arena.

In analyzing the patent in dispute and the trial court’s claim construction, the Federal Circuit found that the trial court went too far in excluding entirely the arm bands and tapered side torso from the scope of the patent. The Court agreed that these elements had functional aspects, but concluded it was improper to entirely exclude these elements. The test for infringement of a design patent is not an element-by-element comparison. Instead, infringement is to be assessed based on the overall design, excluding the functional aspects of certain elements (as opposed to excluding the elements entirely).

Based on this faulty claim construction, the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded.

Conclusion

This case highlights the difficulty that design patents present for courts and fact finders. Sometimes, the functional/ornamental aspects are difficult to distinguish and apply. Nonetheless, design patents are still an important piece of intellectual property for many companies and should not be discounted lightly.

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