By Sarah Burstein, Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law
Despite the protestations of Columbia and its amici in support of the petition for rehearing, the Federal Circuit’s decision in Columbia v. Seirus is not the end of design patent law as we know it. (For prior Patently-O coverage, of this case and the pending petition, see here and here.)
It would be better for everyone if the court had been clearer on one key point but—even if that part is not corrected—the sky still will not fall.
The paragraph that has spurred these declarations of designpocalypse reads as follows:
The district court relied on one precedent from this court—L.A. Gear—for the proposition that logos should be wholly disregarded in the design-infringement analysis. In that case, the parties did not dispute that the patented and accused designs were substantially similar. L.A. Gear, 988 F.2d at 1125. In fact, “copying [was] admitted.” Id. In evaluating infringement there, we explained that design infringement is not avoided “by labelling.” Id. at 1126. A would-be infringer should not escape liability for design patent infringement if a design is copied but labeled with its name. But L.A. Gear does not prohibit the fact finder from considering an ornamental logo, its placement, and its appearance as one among other potential differences between a patented design and an accused one. Indeed, the fact finder is tasked with determining whether an ordinary observer would find the “effect of the whole design substantially the same.” Gorham, 81 U.S. at 530. It would be inconsistent with this mandate to ignore elements of the accused design entirely, simply because those elements included the name of the defendant.
Columbia v. Seirus, 942 F.3d 1119 at 1131. Columbia and its amici argue that the court’s decision in Columbia is inconsistent with a “holding” in L.A. Gear and will wreak destruction and devastation on design patent law. Columbia and its amici are wrong on both counts.
First, the statement in L.A. Gear that pertained to “labelling” was not a holding. As the Columbia panel noted, the issue of whether the designs were sufficiently similar was not before the court in L.A. Gear. In the briefs, none of the parties involved in L.A. Gear argued that “labelling” was relevant to design patent infringement. Nothing in the decision in L.A. Gear suggests that the issue came up in oral argument. The issue of whether “labelling” was relevant to the issue of design patent infringement was simply not before the Federal Circuit in L.A. Gear. Thus, nothing the Federal Circuit said about “labelling” vis-à-vis design patents constituted a decision of any kind—let alone a holding.
It’s not clear why the L.A. Gear panel chose to include that bit of “labelling” dicta. But it is dicta.
And even if it weren’t, not all uses of logos, brand names, etc. constitute “labelling.” As the panel appreciated, these visual elements can be used decoratively. (For many good examples, consider Louis Vuitton’s textile designs.) If we were to have a rule against “labelling,” some thoughtful development and line-drawing may be required.
Second, Columbia argues (and some of its amici echo) that the decision in Columbia v. Seirus will require courts to issue judgments of noninfringement whenever a defendant “simply emblazon[s] [its] brand name or logo on another’s design.” The panel decision says no such thing. It merely says that courts don’t have to ignore any and all uses of logos.
The three traditional types of protectable designs are: (1) configuration (a/k/a shape), separate and apart from any surface ornamentation; (2) surface ornamentation, separate and apart from the underlying configuration; and (3) a combination of both. The USPTO currently interprets the second category broadly, including any and all “surface treatment.”
In Columbia v. Seirus, the claimed design was for surface ornamentation only. Despite the broad language used by the panel, the panel had no occasion to—and could issue no holding as to—all possible types of designs. This decision simply does not apply to designs that claim configuration only. If patent owners wish to avoid having brand names, logos, etc. considered as part of the infringement analysis, they are free to keep claiming configuration-only designs (such as those shown in Bison’s amicus brief). Read properly, the panel’s decision in Columbia v. Seirus, merely says that, when surface ornamentation is claimed as part of the design, a court should consider the entire surface design—even if the surface design includes logos or brand names.
That ruling is consistent, by the way, with the USPTO’s current treatment of logos, brand names, etc. in the prosecution context. Logos, brand names, etc. can—and are—claimed as (or as part of) “surface treatments.” Here are just a few examples:
It would be odd to say that these kinds of elements count as “designs” (or parts thereof) for the purposes of patentability but must be ignored entirely when it comes to infringement. Such a rule would not only be odd, it would also significantly undermine the notice function of design patents.
Of course, we could have a system where we said that logos, brand names, etc. aren’t protectable as “designs” and should be irrelevant to both patentability and scope. But that’s not the system we have today. Perhaps it’s a conversation we should have.
The panel’s decision in Columbia v. Seirus could put some pressure on patentees to be clearer about whether they’re claiming a configuration-only or combination design. After all, the latter involves surface designs while the former does not. But that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Greater clarity in this area would promote competition and greater public notice and could be achieved with minimal cost or complication for design patent applicants.
One final note: It’s not clear why the panel in Columbia v. Seirus put such emphasis on “copying.” Copying is neither necessary nor sufficient to support a finding of design patent infringement. (For more on the contemporary test for design patent infringement, see this short piece.) The references to copying are unhelpful at best; pernicious dicta at worst.
To summarize, if the panel in Columbia v. Seirus wanted to issue a revised decision that made it clear that they’re talking about surface designs—not configuration-only designs—that would probably be helpful. And the part about “copying” could go. But the sky is not falling.
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The following briefs have been filed in the pending en banc petition for the case: