Thursday, September 11, 2014

Doorman v. Paccar - For Design Patents, Inter Partes Review is Non-Functional

Sometimes lawyers learn more from their failures than their successes, and this has proven to be true in the context of inter partes review of design patents.  Since the Patent Trial and Appeal Board launched the IPR program in 2012, there have been only a handful of design patent decisions, but with each new decision, we learn a bit more about how the PTAB will approach design patents. 

Last Friday, the PTAB handed down a decision in Doorman Prods., Inc. v. Paccar, Inc., IPR2014-00542, 2014 WL 4444041 (Patent Tr. & App. Bd. Sept. 5, 2014).  In its decision, the Board denied Doorman's Petition to institute an inter partes review, but it is the Board's reasoning that was noteworthy.  Below is an image from Paccar's U.S. Patent No. 525,731, which was the subject of the petition. 

First, the Board categorically rejected Doorman's request to filter out functional elements within the design in the context of claim construction.  The Board curiously found that the "Petitioner conflates invalidity based on functionality under 35 U.S.C. § 171 with invalidity based on obviousness under 35 U.S.C. § 103" and held that the it had no authority to entertain a functionality challenge to the design patent:
Further, a challenge based on functionality under 35 U.S.C. § 171 is not permitted in an inter partes review because it is not based on 35 U.S.C. § 103 nor is it based on prior art that consists of a patent or printed publication. 35 U.S.C. § 311(b); 37 C.F.R. § 42.105(b)(2). Therefore, we agree with Patent Owner that the allegedly functional elements identified by Petitioner (Pet. 12) must be considered in an obviousness analysis of the visual impression created by the patented design as a whole (Prelim. Resp. 26). 
Id. at  *3.

The Board appears to have badly misconstrued the Petitioner's claim construction argument with an invalidity challenge under § 171.  The Board's decision to construe the Petitioner's claim construction argument as a validity argument seems to be out of step with the Board's requirement to apply the "broadest reasonable construction."  Furthermore, it directly contradicts the Federal Circuit's guidance on design patent claim construction.  See OddzOn Prods., Inc. v. Just Toys, Inc., 122 F.3d 1396, 1405 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (if "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.").  Whatever the "broadest reasonable construction" means in design patent cases before the PTAB, it must at least be as broad as the construction that would be provided in the context of a district court litigation.  

The Patent Office's failure to appreciate how design patents are being construed in the district courts has led to a strange double standard wherein design patents are construed much more narrowly at the Patent Office then they are in litigation.  IPR may be an interesting venue for bringing this issue to a head and encouraging the Patent Office and the Board to consider modernizing its view of the broadest reasonable construction for designs, in light of how they are being construed, in practice. 

In Doorman, the Board's failure to consider functionality in the context of claim construction led to disastrous results for the Petitioner.  The Board ultimately concluded that the Petitioner's primary reference, Kobayashi, "does not include a side Lamp D, striations, and a checkered surface pattern as shown in the patented design," id. at *5, and therefore could not serve as a primary reference.    But these were the same features that Doorman argued were functional in claim construction.  Whatever the merits of the Petitioner's functionality argument were, they appeared to be central to its Petition, and the Board's refusal to even consider filtering out functional elements would appear to be a clear error of law.  

Nevertheless, while Doorman remains the law of the PTAB, design patent practitioners would be wise not to rely on PTAB claim construction to filter out functional elements of design patent in IPR Petitions.  

For those who are curious, below is an image of Paccar's '731 Patent alongside the proposed primary reference, U.S. Design Patent No. 498,859 to Kobayashi.  Basically the same?

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