Design patents cover visual, nonfunctional characteristics embodied in, or applied to, an article of manufacture. They may relate to the configuration or shape of an article, the surface ornamentation applied to an article, or to a combination of the two. Ultimately, a design patent protects only the appearance of the article and not its structure or functionality. Trade dress is a type of trademark that refers to the image and overall appearance of a product. Trademarks protect brands and the goodwill associated with the brand. A trademark is used to identify the source of goods or services and is used to distinguish the goods and services of one seller or provider from another. Trade dress can include product packaging, product shape and color, and the look and feel of a restaurant or retail store.
Recent decisions from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit regarding damages available in design patent cases highlight the court’s divergence from its damages jurisprudence in the utility patent context – specifically, the lack of an apportionment requirement between patented and unpatented portions of an infringing product. While this may make design patents increasingly desirable, the Supreme Court’s decision to review the issue now raises the possibility that the discrepancy will be resolved.
The Court held that the district court must review the design disclosed in the patent as a whole, and consider whether functional elements contributed to the ornamentation of the design. Although a design patent protects ornamental features rather than functional features, the claims are not limited solely to ornamental elements. The combination of form and function to achieve an ornamental result is within the scope of a design patent. This is particularly true given that design patents are statutorily permitted to cover “articles of manufacture” which almost always serve a functional purpose. Because design patents “protect the overall ornamentation of a design, not an aggregation of separable elements,” eliminating individual elements of the design from consideration was found to be improper, and the Court remanded for further proceedings.
On Monday, March 21, 2016, the United States Supreme Court accepted certiorari in Samsung Electronics v. Apple, Inc., which relates to how much Samsung owes for infringing Apple design patents. The question accepted by the Supreme Court is: “Where a design patent is applied to only a component of a product, should an award of infringer’s profits be limited to those profits attributable to the component?”
The victory, if it stands, will encourage more design patent infringement claims, and Apple will likely find itself defending against similar suits in the not so distant future. On December 14, Samsung filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to hear an appeal in the case. Given the economics of future litigation, Apple might quietly hope that the Court takes the opportunity to articulate the appropriate standard for awarding total profit damages for infringement.
Future Motion launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the earliest prototypes of the OneWheel on January 6th, 2014. Within 24 hours, the project had already collected 40 percent of the funds it needed for the next phase of development. Within three days, it had secured 85 percent of its funding request and it only took a total of four days to reach the $100,000 pledge goal that Future Motion had initially set out to achieve. All told, Future Motion received a total in excess of $630,000 within 25 days and was able to meet stretch goals for LED lighting systems and mobile app development.
While we tend to think of Las Vegas’ tourism-based economy as built on gambling, trade shows also bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city each year. Thus, the issue of effective enforcement of the patent laws at these trade shows becomes entwined with the health of the city’s economy. Against this backdrop, the Las Vegas bench of the U.S. District Court for Nevada has developed a muscular set of equitable remedies for U.S. patent holders who complain to the court of patent infringement by a trade show exhibitor, remedies that the court can and does deploy with sufficient speed to be effective within the narrow timeframe of a trade show.
This years’ list of the top 50 companies having been granted design patents was dominated by technology, automotive, and consumer product companies, with foreign corporations representing more than 40% of the top 50 with a total of 20 companies. According to the IPO data, in 2014 the top 50 design patent recipients received a combined total of 4,743 design patents, compared to 4,599 granted to the top 50 recipients in 2013. Specifically, the growth in 2014 was just under an increase of 150 design patents that were granted in 2014 compared to an increase of nearly 400 that occurred year-to-year from 2012 to 2013. Despite the recent slowdown, however, the prospects remain strong for continued growth in design patent applications in the coming years, especially as innovators look toward design patents to strengthen their IP portfolios.
Damages for infringement of a design patent can be recovered for the greater of: (1) total profits from the infringer’s sales under 35 U.S.C. § 289, (2) damages in the form of the patentee’s lost profits or a reasonable royalty under § 284, or (3) $250 in statutory damages under § 289. Here, the Court held that the district court incorrectly instructed the jury to choose between awarding damages under § 284 or § 289. According to the Court, “[o]nly where § 289 damages are not sought, or are less than would be recoverable under § 284, is an award of § 284 damages appropriate.”
Apple v. Samsung is not over. Samsung has stated it is going to file a petition for certiorari later this year with the Supreme Court. In its petition, Samsung is likely to challenge, among other things, the Federal Circuit’s analysis of the district court’s claim construction and what these design patents truly cover. Samsung likely will also challenge the award of hundreds of millions of dollars (the total profits Samsung received on the phones found to be infringing). If the Supreme Court takes the case the Court will be presented with novel and important legal questions that may affect the damages award, both the underlying finding of liability and the proper measure of damages. Additionally, the foundation of Apple’s damages award is crumbling at the Patent Office, with one of the key design patents being rejected on multiple grounds.
In 2013, 647,300 industrial design registrations were filed – a 6.4% drop from 2012. The decline in global registrations stems primarily from the slow-down of Chinese manufacturing, which produced 12% fewer registrations than the previous year. After seven years of consecutive growth, 2013’s global registrations of 919,100 designs represents a 3.3% decrease from 2012. In 2013, upwards of three million industrial design registrations were in force.
Earlier this month the Central Reexamination Unit of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued a non-final rejection of an Apple design patent at the center of their never-ending patent battle with Samsung. The patent in question – U.S. Design Patent D618,677 – covers the appearance of the surface of an electronic device. One new problem Apple now faces with respect to the ‘677 design patent is that the patent examiner has determined that the priority claim made in the patent “must be canceled.”
Ethicon sued Covidien in the Ohio district court for infringement of utility and design patents directed to ultrasonic surgical shear devices. The court granted Covidien’s motions for summary judgment, concluding that one patent was invalid as indefinite, that another patent was not infringed by Covidien’s products, and that several design patents were invalid as functional and were not infringed. Ethicon appealed the judgment to the Federal Circuit. The Federal Circuit reversed on indefiniteness, reversed the district court’s determination that Ethicon’s design patents were invalid as primarily functional, and vacated the summary judgment of non-infringement for a surgical shears patent.
Design patents are, in my opinion, an unfortunately overlooked patent. While a single design patent is a weak form of protection, they can be obtained quickly, rather inexpensively, and you can market the product using the terms “patented design” once a design patent has been obtained. Therefore, inventors and their representatives would do well to consider whether one or more design patents would be useful to supplement protection sought by a utility patent in order to facilitate a larger business strategy.
Last week I wrote about adopting a patent strategy in order to lay the foundation for success. What the article did not touch upon, however, is how you can use procedural mechanisms available at the Patent Office to expand your patent into a patent portfolio, or how to correct unforeseen problems with your patent (or portfolio) that may needlessly compromise…