Addressing the standard for obviousness of design patents, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in a per curiam opinion, upheld the Patent Trial & Appeal Board’s finding that a challenged design patent was not obvious over the pre-KSR design patent obviousness test or anticipated. LKQ Corporation v. GM Global Technology Operations, Case No. 21-2348 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 20, 2023) (per curiam) (Lourie, J., concurring) (Stark, J., concurring).
GM owns a design patent for the fender of a vehicle. LKQ Corp. previously held a license to the patent from GM, but negotiations to renew the license failed. Because LKQ continued to manufacture the fender after the expiration of the license, GM sent LKQ notice that it was infringing the patent. In response, LKQ petitioned for an inter partes review against GM, alleging that the patent was obvious and/or anticipated.
The Board found that LKQ had not presented enough evidence to prove that the patent was obvious or anticipated. For purposes of evaluating the obviousness of the design over prior art, the Board defined ordinary observers as “retail consumers who purchase replacement fenders and commercial replacement part buyers.” The Board concluded that, from the perspective of the ordinary observer, there were multiple differences between the patented design and the key reference, a prior art design patent. LKQ appealed.
LKQ argued that the Board erred in finding that there was no anticipation and in applying the obviousness tests of In re Rosen (C.C.P.A. 1982) and Durling v. Spectrum Furniture (Fed. Cir. 1996) because the Supreme Court of the United States overruled those tests in KSR International v. Telflex (2007).
The Federal Circuit upheld the Board’s definition of the ordinary observer. The Court found that retail purchasers of the entire vehicle would not be included in the ordinary observer group because purchasers of the product embodying the design are interested in the part itself, not the vehicle as a whole. The Court went on to uphold the Board’s application of the ordinary observer obviousness test, agreeing that the patented design created different overall impressions from the prior art for purposes of both obviousness and anticipation.
The Federal Circuit then addressed whether KSR overruled the Durling and Rosen tests for obviousness of design patents. The Court found that LKQ properly preserved the argument for appeal by asserting it in its opening brief to the Board. The Court then found that it was unclear whether the Supreme Court overruled Durling and Rosen, and therefore the Court was bound to apply the existing law. In applying the Durling and Rosen tests, the Court found that LKQ had failed to identify “the correct visual impression created by the patented design as a whole” because the prior art patent lacked certain key design features of the patented design. Thus, the Court affirmed the Board’s finding that the patent was not obvious.
Judge Lourie provided an additional opinion and addressed LKQ’s argument that KSR overruled Rosen. Lourie stated that because KSR did not involve design patents, which require a different obviousness analysis than utility patents, and because KSR overruled a rigid obviousness standard that was different from the flexible Rosen standard, KSR did not overrule Rosen.
Judge Stark concurred in the judgment but found that LKQ forfeited its argument that KSR overruled Rosen. According to Stark, LKQ’s argument in the opening brief mentioned overruling the second portion of the Durling test but not the Rosen test, and therefore LKQ did not have standing to argue on appeal that the Rosen test should be overruled. Stark noted in his agreement that there is tension between KSR, Durling and Rosen, but stated that it was unnecessary to determine whether KSR overruled Durling and Rosen in this appeal.