Wednesday, September 06, 2006

6th Circuit decision involving interplay of patents with functionality defense

In a sea of not-so-interesting recent decisions, a recent trade dress decision of the 6th Circuit stood out.

The case is Fuji Kogyo Co. v. Pacific Bay International, Inc., No. 05-5854 (6th Cir. Aug. 23, 2006). The plaintiff was trolling for a finding that the defendant had infringed its asserted trade dress rights in the shape of the eyelets that are attached to fishing rods (you know, those things that the line goes through). The plaintiff had previously several utility patents AND several design patents on the various eyelet configurations it asserted. After a bench trial, the district court found them all functional and threw back the plaintiff's case.

The 6th Circuit affirmed. It first noted that the design patents provided presumptive evidence of non-functionality, since you can't get design patents for functional stuff. But the appeals court nevertheless with the district court that there was a whole school of evidence that rebutted that presumption of nonfunctionality.

In its discussion, the 6th Circuit did several interesting things.

First, it used the old CCPA "Morton-Norwich test" to determine if the claimed trade dress was functional. As to the part of the Morton-Norwich test that looks at whether any utility patent tout the utilitarian features claimed as trade dress, the 6th Circuit, citing TrafFix Displays, found that the plaintiff's expired utility patents were literal embodiments of two of the asserted eyelet configurations.

Going further, the 6th Circuit used patent law's doctrine of equivalents in holding that two other of the asserted eyelet configurations, while not literally within the claims of the patents, performed substantially the same function in substantially the same way to obtain the same result. The 6th Circuit rejected the plaintiff's argument that the district court was required to first do a claim construction analysis to determine if the patents could be VALIDLY be construed to cover the asserted trade dress. (In other words, the plaintiff, who wanted a narrow reading of the patent, wanted the court to check out the prior art so that the plaintiff could argue for a narrow range of equivalents.) The 6th Circuit rejected this interesting argument, holding that the district court's job wasn't to construe the patent in such a way as to avoid a finding of invalidity, but simply to determine if what it said (both in claims and in the specification) was probative, relevant evidence on the issue trade dress functionality.

I think the Court's overall analysis makes sense, and I particularly like the way it implicitly holds that the user-friendly Morton-Norwich test is fully consistent with the Supreme Court's confusing TrafFix decision. Anytime an appeals court says, either implicitly or explicitly, that TrafFix didn't turn everything upside down and some of the tried-and-true old precedents still apply, I'm a happy camper, er, fisherman.

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