Automotive Body Parts Ass’n v. Ford Global Techs, LLC (Supreme Court 2020) [19-__PetitionForAWritOfCertiorari]
Ford has implemented an aggressive strategy of patenting the various parts of its new vehicles. Many of these new patents are design patents: Wheels; fenders; airbag compartments; grilles; bumpers; tail lights; headlights; console; hood; mirror; etc.
After an accident, a vehicle owner typically wants to repair the vehicle. While repair of the vehicle may seem permissible under an exhaustion doctrine, the difficulty comes in when looking at individual parts. Repair of the vehicle might require replacement/reconstruction of a patent part (such as the side-mirror pictured above). The repair industry (and insurance companies) would like to use less-expensive repair parts — one way is to buy off-brand parts — especially for lower-tech items such as a fender or headlight cover. But, the design patents are preventing that from happening.
In its new petition for writ of certiorari, Automotive Body Parts Ass’n asks the Supreme Court should provide a broader view for the exhaustion doctrine:
Under the patent exhaustion doctrine, a patentee’s decision to sell a product exhausts all of its patent rights in that item. The unrestricted sale creates an implied license to use, which includes the right to repair. Analysis of whether a right to repair exists requires identification of the correct article of manufacture.
The Federal Circuit held that repair rights and identification of the article of manufacture should be determined solely by what is claimed in the patent. This holding allows a patentee to greatly diminish or eliminate the right to repair and allows improper broadening of design patent protection over unclaimed portions of a design. The question presented is:
How should the article of manufacture be determined when applying the patent exhaustion and repair doctrines in design patent cases?
These issues have already been discussed in some ways by the Supreme Court in Aro Mfg. Co., Inc. v. Convertible Top Co., 365 U.S. 336 (1961) and Aro Manufacturing Co. v. Convertible Top Replacement Co., 377 U.S. 476 (1964). However, the petitioner largely sets these cases aside — arguing that design patents are particularly problematic — and that the Supreme Court can fashion a design-patent-specific remedy.