December 11, 2014

IPR Obviousness Challenge of Design Patent Denied

By Matthew L. Cutler, Principal

Through two years of inter partes review practice, only 8 petitions were filed that were directed to design patents (out of 1773 total petitions). Given this limited number of petitions, lessons are going to be difficult to learn regarding the treatment of design patents in IPR proceedings. As such, we take a look at a failed petition, filed in Dorman Products v. Paccar, IPR2014-00555, wherein the Board had to consider the differences between functionality, pursuant to 35 USC § 171 and obviousness, pursuant to 35 USC § 103.

In determining whether a design patent claim is obvious, the parties agreed that the focus should be on the visual impression of the claimed design, as a whole. Order at 4. That is where the parties agreement, however, ended. In the Petition, Petitioner argued that certain functional elements of the design should not be considered part of the design patent claim. Patent Owner disagreed, arguing that, whether or not the elements are functional, they must still be considered as part of the visual impression created by the design as a whole. Id. 

In explaining its rational, the Board stated an ornamental design for an article of manufacture may not be patented if the design is “primarily functional” rather than “primarily ornamental.”  Order at 4. Further, of course, a design patent must not be obvious, pursuant to §103. Id. The inquiry into functionality, however, is separate and distinct from the obviousness analysis. Id. at 5. As such, the allegedly functional elements of a design patent must be considered in an obviousness analysis of the visual impression created by the patented design as a whole. Id.

After deciding that the “functional” characteristics issue, the Board turned to the obviousness analysis, citing Apple, Inc. v. Samsung Elecs. Co., 678 F.3d 1314, 1329 (Fed. Cir. 2012), for the proposition that, in an obviousness challenge to a design patent, the ultimate inquiry is “whether the claimed design would have been obvious to a designer of ordinary skill who designs articles of the type involved.” Order at 6.

Primarily because the functional characteristics of the design claim were considered in the obviousness analysis, the Board concluded that Petitioner failed to demonstrate a reasonable likelihood that a designer of ordinary skill would have viewed the primary prior art reference to give the same visual impression as the challenged design patent. Id. at 21. As such, the Petition was denied.