by Dennis Crouch
The Federal Circuit recently vacated a jury verdict of non-infringement in the long-running design patent dispute between outdoor apparel companies Columbia Sportswear and Seirus Innovative Accessories. Columbia Sportswear North America, Inc. v. Seirus Innovative Accessories, Inc., No. 2021-2299, — F.4th — (Fed. Cir. Sept. 15, 2023). The Federal Circuit held that “comparison prior art” used for infringement analysis must be tied to the same article of manufacture as that claimed. The lower court thus erred by permitting the jury to consider additional references. The decision benefits design patent holders – making it easier to prove infringement and also places more weight on skillful decisions made during prosecution to define the article of manufacture.
Columbia owns U.S. Design Patent No. D657,093, which claims an ornamental design for a heat reflective material featuring contrasting wavy lines. Seirus sells gloves and other products incorporating its HeatWave material, which features similar wavy lines. Columbia sued Seirus for infringing the ‘D’093 patent in Oregon federal court.
The district court originally granted summary judgment of infringement in Columbia’s favor. On appeal, the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded, finding disputed issues of fact regarding the impact of Seirus’s logo and certain prior art references. Columbia Sportswear North America, Inc. v. Seirus Innovative Accessories, Inc., 942 F.3d 1119 (Fed. Cir. 2019) (“Columbia I”) (holding that logo placement might allow the defendant to avoid an infringement judgment). I noted previously that this holding is in some tension with the court’s 1993 decision in L.A. Gear, Inc. v. Thom McAn Shoe Co., 988 F.2d 1117 (1993). On remand, the case went to trial, and a jury came to the opposite conclusion — finding no infringement. Columbia again appealed to the Federal Circuit.
Jury verdicts are given strong deference on appeal and so are usually not directly challenged. Here, the appellant skirted the verdict itself by focusing on the jury instructions, with the patentee arguing that the district court erred in its instructions regarding “comparison prior art.”
In design patent law, the test for infringement is whether an ordinary observer would find the accused design substantially similar to the claimed design, such that they would be deceived into purchasing the accused design believing it to be the claimed design. See Gorham Co. v. White, 81 U.S. 511 (1871). When the claimed and accused designs are not plainly dissimilar, courts apply this “ordinary observer” test in light of the prior art. Egyptian Goddess, Inc. v. Swisa, Inc., 543 F.3d 665, 676 (Fed. Cir. 2008) (en banc). The rationale is that prior art designs provide context that can help highlight similarities and differences between the claimed and accused designs.
In its decision, the Federal Circuit held for the first time that a prior art reference can qualify as comparison prior art only if it discloses a design applied to the same article of manufacture identified in the design patent claim. This holding aligns with other design patent infringement precedent limiting the universe of anticipatory prior art and infringing designs to the particular article of manufacture claimed. See Curver Luxembourg, SARL v. Home Expressions Inc., 938 F.3d 1334, 1340 (Fed. Cir. 2019); Int’l Seaway Trading Corp. v. Walgreens Corp., 589 F.3d 1233, 1240 (Fed. Cir. 2009).
We have held that, for a prior-art design to anticipate, it must be applied to the article of manufacture identified in the claim. We have also held that, for an accused design to infringe, it must be applied to the article of manufacture identified in the claim. We conclude that this requirement also applies to comparison prior art used in an infringement analysis.
Slip Op. (internal citations removed). The court explained its reasoning that its narrow approach aligns with the purpose of allowing comparison prior art: “that purpose is to help inform an ordinary observer’s comparison between the claimed and accused designs—designs that, necessarily, must be applied to the same article of manufacture.” And, although the issue has not been expressly decided, prior cases also generally involved comparison prior art that had been applied to the same article of manufacture as that claimed.
Here, Columbia’s ‘D’093 patent claim was limited to ornamental designs for “heat reflective material.” Yet the district court instructed jurors that they must decide for themselves what constitutes comparison prior art, without explaining that it must involve designs applied to heat reflective material. Three particular references with wavy designs were presented to the jury, including U.S. Patent Nos. 2,539,690 (inlaying plastic threads into plastic sheets); 1,515,792 (unwoven fabric for tires); 5,626,949 (shell fabric for outerwear). Thought the claim is directed to “heat reflective material,” the court had admitted the references disclosing “wave patterns on fabric.” Columbia argued these references were improperly admitted as comparison prior art since they did not involve designs applied to heat reflective materials. But the Federal Circuit declined to directly rule on their admissibility, instead vacating and remanding for the district court to reconsider the issue under the new narrower requiring comparison prior art to be applied to the claimed article of manufacture. The court suggested that the district court conduct a claim construction on the term heat reflective material before determining whether the references fit within the scope.
Seirus also argued that limiting the patent to heat reflective material would improperly import a functional limitation into the design patent claim. The Federal Circuit properly rejected that argument. While design patents cannot claim primarily functional designs, referring to an article of manufacture’s function to distinguish it from other articles is permissible and relevant.