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Archived updates for Monday, September 22, 2008

Point of Novelty Test Scrapped: Ordinary Observer Test for Design Patent Infringement Now "Informed by Prior Art"

In Egyptian Goddess v. Swisa Inc. (September 22, 2008), the Federal Circuit held en banc that the "point of novelty" test should no longer be used in the analysis of a claim of design patent infringement.

According to the en banc opinion written by Circuit Judge Bryson,
. . . in accordance with Gorham and subsequent decisions, we hold that the "ordinary observer" test should be the sole test for determining whether a design patent has been infringed. Under that test, as this court has sometimes described it, infringement will not be found unless the accused article "embod[ies] the patented design or any colorable imitation thereof." Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 162 F.3d at 1116-17; see also Aminiak & Assocs., Inc. v. Saint-Gobain Calmar, Inc. . . .

In some instances, the claimed design and the accused design will be sufficiently distinct that it will be clear without more that the patentee has not met its burden of proving the two designs would appear "substantially the same" to the ordinary observer, as required by Gorham. In other instances, when the claimed and accused designs are not plainly dissimilar, resolution of the question whether the ordinary observer would consider the two designs to be substantially the same will benefit from a comparison of the claimed and accused designs with the prior art, as in many of the cases discussed above and in the case at bar. Where there are many examples of similar prior art designs, as in a case such as Whitman Saddle, differences between the claimed and accused designs that might not be noticeable in the abstract can become significant to the hypothetical ordinary observer who is conversant with the prior art.

We emphasize that although the approach we adopt will frequently involve comparisons between the claimed design and the prior art, it is not a test for determining validity, but is designed solely as a test of infringement. Thus, as is always the case, the burden of proof as to infringement remains on the patentee. However, if the accused infringer elects to rely on the comparison prior art as part of its defense against the claim of infringement, the burden of production of that prior art is on the accused infringer. To be sure, we have stated that the burden to introduce prior art under the point of novelty test falls on the patentee. See Bernhardt, 386 F.3d at 1384. Under the ordinary observer test, however, it makes sense to impose the burden of production as to any comparison prior art on the accused infringer. The accused infringer is the party with the motivation to point out close prior art, and in particular to call to the court’s attention the prior art that an ordinary observer is most likely to regard as highlighting the differences between the claimed and accused design. Regardless of whether the accused infringer elects to present prior art that it considers pertinent to the comparison between the claimed and accused design, however, the patentee bears the ultimate burden of proof to demonstrate infringement by a preponderance of the evidence. As in our recent decision in In re Seagate Technology, LLC, we "leave it to future cases to further develop the application of this standard." 497 F.3d 1360, 1371 (Fed. Cir. 2007) (en banc).

With regard to whether trial courts should conduct claim construction in design patent cases, the decision leaves
. . . the question of verbal characterization of the claimed designs to the discretion of trial judges, with the proviso that as a general matter, those courts should not treat the process of claim construction as requiring a detailed verbal description of the claimed design, as would typically be true in the case of utility patents.

Under this standard, the question before the court amounted to "whether an ordinary observer, familiar with the prior art Falley and Nailco designs, would be deceived into believing the Swisa buffer is the same as the patented buffer" (in that order below):

. . . It is agreed that the general shape of the accused nail buffer at issue in this case is the same as that of the patented buffer design. The difference between the two is that the accused buffer has raised buffing pads on all four sides, while the patented buffer has buffing pads on only three sides. The two closest prior art nail buffers before the court were the Falley nail buffer, which has a solid, rectangular cross section with slightly raised buffers on all sides, and the Nailco patent, which shows a nail buffer design having a triangular shape and a hollow cross section, and in which raised buffing pads are located on all three sides . . .

In light of the similarity of the prior art buffers to the accused buffer, we conclude that no reasonable fact-finder could find that EGI met its burden of showing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that an ordinary observer, taking into account the prior art, would believe the accused design to be the same as the patented design. In concluding that a reasonable fact-finder could not find infringement in this case, we reach the same conclusion that the district court reached, and for many of the same reasons. Although we do so by using the ordinary observer test as informed by the prior art, rather than by applying the point of novelty test, our analysis largely tracks that of the district court. After analyzing the Nailco patent and the claimed design, as they related to the accused design, the district court concluded that "in the context of nail buffers, a fourth side without a pad is not substantially the same as a fourth side with a pad." While the district court focused on the differences in the particular feature at issue rather than the effect of those differences on the appearance of the design as a whole, we are satisfied that the difference on which the district court focused is important, viewed in the context of the prior art.

Finally, although we do not adopt the "non-trivial advance" test employed by the panel in this case, we note that our analysis under the ordinary observer test is parallel to the panel’s approach in an essential respect. The panel focused on viewing the difference between the claimed and accused designs in light of the prior art, as we do. The panel wrote: "The Swisa buffers have raised, abrasive pads on all four sides. When considering the prior art in the nail buffer field, this difference between the accused design and the patented design cannot be considered minor." 498 F.3d at 1358. That point captures the essence of the rationale of our decision today, even though the panel decision employed a different analytical approach. For the foregoing reasons, we sustain the district court’s entry of summary judgment of no infringement, but we do so under the ordinary observer test in the form that we have adopted, and we hold that the accused design could not reasonably be viewed as so similar to the claimed design that a purchaser familiar with the prior art would be deceived by the similarity between the claimed and accused designs, "inducing him to purchase one supposing it to be the other." without using the point of novelty test that we have disapproved. In the language used by the Supreme Court in Gorham,
81 U.S. at 528, we hold that the accused design could not reasonably be viewed as so similar to the claimed design that a purchaser familiar with the prior art would be deceived by the similarity between the claimed and accused designs, "inducing him to purchase one supposing it to be the other."


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April 06, 2009 11:26 PM  

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