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Design Patent Prior Art Must Be From Same or Analogous Field as Claimed Article of Manufacture

Finding that the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) applied an erroneous interpretation of claim scope, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a Board decision upholding an examiner’s rejection of a lip implant design patent as anticipated by a non-analogous art tool. In re: SurgiSil, Case No. 20-1940 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 4, 2021) (Moore, C.J.)

SurgiSil filed a design application for a lip implant shaped like a generally cylindrical rod that tapered to a point at each end. The examiner rejected the patent as anticipated by a “stump,” an art tool of similar, almost identical, shape used for smoothing and blending areas of pastel or charcoal. SurgiSil appealed the rejection to the Board. The Board affirmed the rejection, finding that the differences in the shapes of SurgiSil’s lip implant and the art tool were minor. The Board rejected SurgiSil’s argument that the two articles of manufacture were “very different,” reasoning that it is irrelevant whether a prior art reference is analogous for anticipation purposes. SurgiSil appealed.

Reviewing the Board’s legal conclusions de novo, the Federal Circuit found that the Board erred as a matter of law. Citing 35 U.S.C. § 171(a) and the 1871 Supreme Court decision in Gorham Co. v. White, the Court explained that a design patent claim does not cover the design in the abstract, and that it is limited to the particular article of manufacture identified in the claim. The Court concluded that the claimed design was limited to a lip implant, did not cover other articles of manufacture and that the Board’s decision therefore rested on an erroneous interpretation of the claim’s scope.




Objective Indicia of Nonobviousness for Design Patents: Same Nexus Requirement as Utility Patents

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed two decisions by the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board), finding that a soup company and soup dispenser manufacturing company failed to prove the unpatentability of two design patents covering can dispensers. The Court also concluded that the analysis for objective indicia of nonobviousness for utility patents also applies to design patents. Campbell Soup Co. v. Gamon Plus, Inc., Case Nos. 20-2344, 21-1019 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 19, 2021) (Moore, J.)

Gamon Plus owns two design patents directed to “the ornamental design for a gravity feed dispenser display,” or a can dispenser. Gamon’s commercialized embodiment is called the iQ Maximizer gravity feed dispenser. For nearly a decade, Gamon sold tens of millions of dollars’ worth of its iQ Maximizer to Campbell Soup. Campbell attributed increased soup sales in part to the iQ Maximizer in its 10-K Securities and Exchange Commission reports (an industry publication) and in an internal marketing study. Campbell later began purchasing similar gravity feed dispensers from Trinity Manufacturing.

Gamon sued Campbell and Trinity for design patent infringement. Campbell and Trinity then petitioned for inter partes review (IPR) of Gamon’s patents. In its final written decisions, the Board found that Campbell and Trinity failed to prove unpatentability because the prior art was not similar enough to the claimed designs to constitute a proper primary reference. Trinity (Campbell) appealed.

In that appeal, the Federal Circuit disagreed, vacated and remanded. On remand, the Board again held that Campbell and Trinity failed to prove unpatentability, finding that the claimed designs would not have been obvious over the prior art. The Board reasoned that although the prior art alone had the same overall visual appearance as the claimed designs, there existed objective indicia of nonobviousness, including Gamon’s commercial success in selling iQ Maximizers to Campbell, Campbell’s praise of—and commercial success in—using the iQ Maximizer and Trinity’s copying of the iQ Maximizer. The Board presumed a nexus between those objective indicia evidences and the claimed designs because it found the iQ Maximizer to be coextensive with the claims, meaning that the product was essentially the disclosed invention with unclaimed features being insignificant. The Board also found that Gamon established such a nexus regardless of the presumption. Campbell and Trinity again appealed.

Again the Federal Circuit reversed, concluding that the claimed designs would have been obvious over the prior art. In doing so, the Court confirmed the Board’s finding that the prior art and the claimed designs shared the same overall visual appearance (which Gamon did not challenge) but found that the Board’s presumption of nexus and finding of a nexus-in-fact between the claimed designs and the evidence of commercial success and praise were not supported by substantial evidence. As for the presumption, the Court considered whether the iQ Maximizer was coextensive with the claimed invention. Nexus is presumed if the objective indicia evidence is tied to a specific product that is “coextensive” with the claimed invention. The Board recognized that the claimed portions of [...]

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No Summary Judgment Where Primary Reference Might Not Be “Basically the Same” as Asserted Design Patent

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that the district court improperly resolved a genuine dispute of material fact with respect to summary judgment of invalidity for design patent obviousness because a reasonable fact finder could have concluded that the primary prior art reference did not create “basically the same” visual impression as the asserted designed patent. Spigen Korea Co., Ltd. v. Ultraproof Inc. et al., Case Nos. 19-1435; -1717 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 17, 2020) (Reyna, J.) (Lourie, J., dissented without opinion).

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If You Can’t Build it, They Won’t Come: No Obviousness Based on Fanciful Engine Design

Reaffirming that a person of ordinary skill in the art must have been able to actually create a disclosure at the time of invention in order for it to serve as an obviousness reference, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a decision by the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (the Board) in an inter partes review (IPR), concluding that a patent covering certain turbofan engine technology was not rendered obvious by a prior art publication that could not be realized into practice. Raytheon Techs. Corp. v. General Electric Co., Case No. 20-1755 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 16, 2021) (Chen, J.)

The issue on appeal was relatively straightforward. In an IPR, GE challenged as obvious a Raytheon patent that covered a specific design of geared gas turbine engine that provided for a “power density” higher than previously invented turbine engines. The patent defined “power density” as a “sea-level-takeoff thrust” divided by the engine turbine volume. During the IPR, GE relied on a 1987 NASA technical memorandum as art and argued that the reference, which envisioned superior performance characteristics based on an advanced engine that was made entirely of composite materials, rendered the challenged claims obvious. The parties did not dispute that this engine was unattainable in 1987, and may still be impossible today, because the envisioned composite materials do not yet (and may never) exist. The memorandum disclosed several performance factors, but not power density, sea-level-takeoff thrust or turbine volume. Nonetheless, GE argued, and the Board agreed, that the memorandum disclosed performance parameters that would have permitted an ordinarily skilled artisan to derive power densities that would have fallen within the range claimed in Raytheon’s patent.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit agreed with Raytheon, concluding that the imaginary engine of the NASA memorandum could not serve as an invalidating reference. In reversing the Board, the Federal Circuit reiterated two bedrock principles of obviousness law:

  • An obviousness reference must be enabled by the knowledge of an ordinarily skilled artisan at the time of the invention (but need not be self-enabling).
  • An invention cannot be rendered obvious by a non-self-enabling reference if no other prior art evidence or reference enables the non-self-enabling reference.

In addition, when a reference’s enablement is challenged, the party offering the reference bears a burden to establish that the reference, itself or in combination with other contemporaneous knowledge, was enabled.

Applying these principles here, the Federal Circuit determined that GE had not met its burden to show that the memorandum was indeed enabled. The Board, wrongly in the Court’s view, focused solely on whether an ordinarily skilled artisan was taught the parameters to ascertain a power density, rather than whether the prior art disclosed a turbofan engine possessing the requisite power density. Finding no evidence in the record to conclude that “a skilled artisan could have made the claimed turbofan engine with the recited power density,” the Court reversed.

Practice Note: Although this case does not break new obviousness ground, it reinforces the general [...]

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There’s No Sugarcoating It: Pocky’s Cookie Design Trade Dress Is Functional

Addressing for the second time whether the design of a chocolate-dipped, stick-shaped cookie was eligible for trade dress protection, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held again that the product configuration was functional and therefore not subject to trade dress protection, affirming summary judgment for defendant Lotte International America Corp. Ezaki Glico Kabushiki Kaisha v. Lotte Int’l America Corp., Case No. 19-3010 (3d Cir. Jan. 26, 2021) (Bibas, C.J.)

Both Ezaki Glico Kabushiki Kaisha and Lotte make thin, stick-like cookies with one side dipped in chocolate or flavored cream. Ezaki Glico’s product, Pocky, and Lotte’s product, Pepero, can be seen in the images below. Ezaki Glico obtained two incontestable trade dress registrations for its Pocky product design as well as a utility patent for a “Stick Shaped Snack and Method for Producing the Same.”

In 2015, Ezaki Glico sued Lotte for trade dress infringement. The district court found the Pocky product configuration functional and therefore not subject to trade dress protection, and granted Lotte’s motion for summary judgment. In October 2020, on appeal, the Third Circuit issued its initial opinion affirming the district court’s decision and rejecting Ezaki Glico’s argument that its trade dress was not functional because it was not essential to its product. (Read more on the initial opinion here.)

Ezaki Glico petitioned for a rehearing en banc, which the Court rejected. Nonetheless, the original panel vacated its earlier ruling and issued a revised opinion that provided further clarification on the functionality doctrine, but likewise affirmed summary judgment for Lotte and held that the Pocky product configuration was functional.

The Third Circuit again rejected Ezaki Glico’s attempts to equate “functional” with “essential”: “If the Lanham Act protected designs that were useful but not essential, as Ezaki Glico claims, it would invade the Patent Act’s domain. Because the Lanham Act excludes useful designs, the two statutes rule different realms.” The Court cited examples from earlier cases to demonstrate that the proper inquiry for functionality looks to whether the particular design chosen for a feature, as opposed to the feature itself, is useful: “Though French press coffeemakers need some handle, there is no functional reason to design the particular handle in the shape of a ‘C.’ . . . And though armchairs need some armrest, there is no functional reason to design the particular armrest as a trapezoid.”

The Third Circuit looked to Ezaki Glico’s registrations for the features of the claimed trade dress, noting that in this case, “[e]very feature of Pocky’s registration relates to the practical functions of holding, eating, sharing, or packing the snack.” Accordingly, the designs chosen for the Pocky configuration rendered the product more useful as a snack and were “not arbitrary or ornamental flourishes that serve only to identify Ezaki Glico as the source.” Having determined that Lotte sufficiently demonstrated that the Pocky trade dress was useful, the Court held that it was “thus functional” and not subject to trade [...]

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PTAB Designates Two Precedential Opinions for Evaluating Impact of District Court Litigations on Discretionary Denial under § 314(a)

In the wake of its May 13, 2020, precedential decision in Apple v. Fintiv, Inc., the Patent Trial and Appeal Board designated as precedential two additional decisions that weigh the Fintiv factors. In Fintiv, the Board articulated six factors for consideration when determining to exercise discretion to deny institution of an inter partes review (IPR) petition under § 314(a) in view of a parallel district court proceeding:

  • Existence of a stay pending IPR
  • Proximity of the court’s trial date to the Board’s deadline for issuing a final written decision
  • Expended investment in the parallel proceeding
  • Overlap between issues raised each proceeding
  • Whether the petitioner and the defendant are the same party
  • Other circumstances.

The two new precedential decisions provide further insight as to what circumstances may tip the balance for each factor. In each decision, the Board found that the circumstances of the parallel district court proceeding did not weigh in favor of a discretionary denial of institution.

In Sotera Wireless, Inc. v. Masimo Corp., Case No. IPR2020-01019, Paper 12 (USPTO Dec. 1, 2020 (Chagnon, APJ) (designated precedential as to § II.A on Dec. 17, 2020), the Board weighed the Fintiv factors and declined to deny institution based on the parallel district proceeding. In particular, the PTAB found that the already granted stay weighed strongly against exercising discretion to deny institution under the first factor. The Board rejected speculative arguments that if it declined review, the district court would lift the already granted stay and would set a trial date to pre-date the timeframe for issuing a final written decision in the IPR proceeding. The Board concluded that the second factor also weighed against denial because discovery was not complete and the district court had not issued a claim construction order or any other significant rulings. The Board also found that the fourth factor (issue overlap) weighed against denial because materially different invalidity grounds had been raised in the district court contentions as compared to the grounds at issue in the IPR petition.

In Snap, Inc. v. SRK Technology, LLC, Case No. IPR2020-00820, Paper 15 (USPTO Oct. 21, 2020 (Droesch, APJ) (designated precedential as to § II.A on Dec. 17, 2020), the Board again weighed the Fintiv factors and declined to deny institution based on the parallel district proceeding. Because the district court had not yet ruled on the motion to stay pending the outcome of the IPR, the Board found that the “stay factor” did not weigh for or against denying institution. As for the issue overlap factor, the Board found that a stipulation by the defendant to not pursue in district court any ground raised, or that could have reasonably been raised, in the IPR weighed strongly in favor of not exercising discretion to deny institution.




PTAB Designates Three Opinions as Precedential

In RPX Corp. v. Applications in Internet Time, LLC, Case Nos. IPR2015-01750, -01751, -01752 (Oct. 2, 2020) (Boalick, CAPJ) (designated precedential on Dec. 4, 2020), the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (Board) terminated institution of RPX’s petitions for inter partes review (IPR) because Salesforce—served with a complaint more than one year before—should have been named as a real party-in-interest (RPI) to the proceedings. As a result, RPX’s petition was time-barred under § 315(b).

The Board’s determination came after remand from the Federal Circuit, which vacated the Board’s prior finding that Salesforce was not an RPI. (IP Update, Vol. 21, No. 8). The Federal Circuit instructed the Board to use the common law understanding of “real party-in-interest” and a “flexible approach that takes into account both equitable and practical considerations, with an eye toward determining whether the non-party is a clear beneficiary that has a pre-existing, established relationship with the petitioner.” On remand, the Board took additional discovery to examine the relationship between RPX and Salesforce, including RPX’s business model, Salesforce’s relationship with RPX, whether RPX represents Salesforce’s interests in invalidating the patents, and the significance of the fact that Salesforce and RPX had overlapping Board members. After considering the relationship, the Board found the evidence pointed clearly toward a common interest—between RPX and its members—in invalidating the patents in IPR proceedings. It found RPX could not avoid the time bar under § 315(b), or estoppel under § 315(e) for its members, by creating the appearance that RPX acts independently of its members’ interests when filing IPR petitions.

In SharkNinja Operating LLC v. iRobot Corp., Case No. IPR2020-00734 (Oct. 6, 2020) (Melvin, APJ) (designated precedential on Dec. 4, 2020), the Board declined to address—for purposes of institution—the patent owner’s claim that the IPR petition failed to name an alleged RPI under § 312(a)(2)’s requirement that a petition “identif[y] all real parties-in-interest.” iRobot alleged that JS Global was an unnamed RPI because it was intertwined with SharkNinja’s business and was in a position to fund and exercise control over the IPR petition. The Board declined to reach a determination on the issue because it would have no impact on the proceeding, absent evidence that (1) JS Global was a time-barred or an otherwise estopped entity whose addition to the petition would result in its dismissal under § 315 or (2) SharkNinja’s omission of JS Global was done in bad faith. Even if SharkNinja was mistaken in its decision not to name JS Global as an RPI, the Board’s precedent would allow SharkNinja to correct the mistake during the proceeding.

In Apple Inc. v. Uniloc 2017 LLC, Case No. IPR2020-00854 (Oct. 28, 2020) (Quinn, APJ) (designated precedential on Dec. 4, 2020), the Board exercised its discretion to deny Apple’s motion for joinder because it would have resulted in a “serial attack” on Uniloc’s patent. Apple had previously filed an IPR petition on the same patent, alleging various grounds of invalidity. The Board denied institution because it failed to show a reasonable likelihood [...]

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Standard Essential Patent Licensing Practices Do Not Violate Antitrust Laws

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated a district court decision that found Qualcomm’s patent licensing practices violate antitrust laws and reversed a permanent, worldwide injunction against several of Qualcomm’s business practices. Fed. Trade Comm’n v. Qualcomm Inc., Case No. 19-16122 (9th Cir. Aug. 11, 2020) (C.J. Callahan).

Qualcomm sells modem chips that are incorporated into cellular handsets (i.e., smartphones) made by companies such as Samsung, Huawai, Apple and others. Qualcomm also holds a number of standard essential patents (SEPs) implemented by modem chips that are essential to cellular communication standards. A core part of Qualcomm’s business model is that it only licenses its SEPs to smartphone makers, i.e., its original equipment manufacturer (OEM) customers, not to rival modem chip suppliers—even though its rivals’ chips practice Qualcomm’s SEPs. Doing this allows Qualcomm to maximize its profits by charging royalty rates based on the value of the end-product smartphones rather than just the modem chip. In addition, Qualcomm will not supply modem chips to OEM customers unless they first pay to license Qualcomm’s SEPs (“no license, no chips”). OEMs must pay this licensing fee to Qualcomm even if they source chips from another supplier.

In January 2017, the FTC filed suit against Qualcomm in the Northern District of California, alleging that Qualcomm’s licensing practices violate the antitrust laws and unfairly protect its monopoly power as a modem chip supplier. Following a two-week bench trial, the district court issued a lengthy opinion ruling in favor of the FTC and ordering extensive injunctive relief requiring Qualcomm to change its business practices. The court made a number of findings, including: (1) Qualcomm’s refusal to license its SEPs to rival chipmakers violates both its FRAND commitments to standard-setting organizations (SSOs) and an antitrust duty to deal; (2) Qualcomm’s royalty rates for its SEPs are unreasonably high because they are based on the value of end products and (3) Qualcomm’s royalties, in conjunction with its “no license, no chips” policy, imposes an anticompetitive “surcharge” on the price of its rivals’ chips. Qualcomm appealed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision in its entirety and vacated the injunctive relief which had been ordered, finding that Qualcomm’s licensing practices amount to “hypercompetitive,” not anticompetitive, behavior. The Court recognized that Qualcomm’s licensing practices are designed to maximize its profits, but concluded that they do not unfairly distort competition within the modem chip markets. According to the Court, the district court improperly extended the reach of the antitrust laws in issuing its injunction.

The Ninth Circuit addressed and rejected each of the district court’s findings. First, the Court concluded that Qualcomm does not have an antitrust “duty to deal” with its rival chipmakers. The Court emphasized that the Supreme Court has recognized only a narrow exception to the general rule that a business need not deal with its competitors, and concluded that the exception was not met here. The Court also concluded that whether Qualcomm breached a FRAND commitment to license its SEPs to rivals was [...]

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Eighth Circuit Cools Off Antitrust Claims Based on Alleged Patent Fraud

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment dismissing antitrust and tortious interference claims based on fraudulent procurement of patents where the plaintiff failed to show a knowing and willful intent to deceive the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). Inline Packaging, LLC v. Graphic Packaging International, LLC, Case No. 18-3167 (8th Cir. June 18, 2020) (Smith, J.).

Inline Packaging and Graphic Packaging are manufacturers of susceptor packaging, a specialized food packaging used for microwaving frozen foods. Graphic developed the susceptor design in partnership with Nestlé in 2005. The packaging was redesigned from a prior patent obtained several years earlier. Although Graphic’s computer-aided design drafter was listed as the sole inventor of the redesigned packaging claimed in the asserted patent, Nestlé’s engineer provided feedback that was implemented into the design, including the addition and deletion of certain features of the packaging.

In 2014, Nestlé held an auction to select the next manufacturer of its susceptor packaging. Nestlé originally selected Inline as the supplier of its susceptor packaging, but later awarded 90% of the susceptor packaging business to Graphic after Graphic notified Nestlé that Inline would likely infringe on Graphic’s patents. In June 2015, Graphic initiated patent litigation against Inline. In July 2015, Inline brought an antitrust suit against Graphic alleging that Graphic monopolized the susceptor packaging market using anticompetitive practices in violation of federal and state antitrust laws. To support its antitrust claims, Inline alleged that Graphic fraudulently procured the asserted patents, made baseless litigation threats and engaged in predatory discount bundling through the use of multi-year supply agreements. At the time the lawsuit was initiated, Graphic was the dominant supplier of susceptor packaging, with an almost 95% share of the US market. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Graphic, dismissing Inline’s claims. Inline appealed.

The Eighth Circuit reviews grants of summary judgment de novo to determine whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists and whether judgment is entitled as a matter of law. Here, all inferences were viewed in the light most favorable to Inline. Section 2 of the Sherman Act prohibits monopolizing, or attempting to monopolize, any part of the trade or commerce among the several states. To prove a violation of Section 2, a claimant must show that an entity possessed monopoly power in the relevant market and willfully acquired or maintained such monopoly power through anticompetitive conduct rather than as the result of fair competition (e.g., by means of a superior product or business acumen).

The Eighth Circuit first considered whether Graphic fraudulently procured the asserted patents. Patent fraud, also known as Walker Process fraud, can support a monopolization claim where the defendant procured the patent at issue by knowing and willful fraud on the PTO, or maintained and enforced the patent with knowledge of the fraudulent manner in which it was obtained. Knowing and willful fraud requires an intent to deceive or inequitable conduct. The Court reasoned that this standard requires clear and convincing [...]

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