Crocs, Inc. v. US International Trade Commission (ITC) (Fed. Cir. 2010) ("In the matter of CERTAIN FOAM FOOTWARE")
In 2006, the ITC began an investigation to determine whether knock-off imports of the iconic Crocs foam shoes infringed either the Crocs utility patent (Patent No. 6,993,858) or the Crocs design patent (Patent No. D. 517789). After a full investigation, the ITC found no patent violation – holding instead that the utility patent was obvious and that the design patent was not infringed. The ITC also held that Crocs had not established a "domestic industry" relating to the patented product and thus, that the Commission did not have standing. On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed.
Design Patent Claim Construction:
As is ordinary, the Crocs design patent claims "the ornamental design for ___, as shown and described." Here, the blank (___) was filled by the word "footwear." Following utility patent claim-construction precedent the ITC had described the drawings and used that description to limit the claim scope. On appeal, the Federal Circuit rejected that approach and instead holding that in the usual case, a design patent's drawings typically needs very little textual description. The court also held that design patent claim construction should be less textually detailed because design patent infringement (and validity) are judged by looking at the design as a whole. An element-by-element description unduly draws attention to the details and "away from consideration of the design as a whole."
This case shows the dangers of reliance on a detailed verbal claim construction. The claim construction focused on particular features of the '789 patent design and led the administrative judge and the Commission away from consideration of the design as a whole. This error is apparent in the Commission's explicit reference to two details required by the written claim construction but not by the '789 drawings: (1) a strap of uniform width, and (2) holes evenly spaced around the sidewall of the upper. As shown in Figure 1 of the '789 patent, the strap bulges to a greater width at the middle of the strap on the far left of the figure. Thus, the design figure does not require a strap of uniform width between the two round connectors. Also, as shown in Figure 4 of the '789 patent, the holes are not evenly spaced. Figure 4 shows a gap in the spacing (particularly towards the big toe). Nonetheless, the written claim description required uniform strap width and uniform hole spacing—contrary to the claimed invention. This error distorts the infringement analysis by the ordinary observer viewing the design as a whole. The administrative judge and the Commission needed to apply the ordinary observer test to "the design shown in Figures 1–7."
Under the now defunct "point of novelty" tests for both infringement and validity, courts had some justification for describing specific elements of the patented design because those elements would potentially be considered as points of novelty. Although not spelled-out by the court, the recent elimination of the "points of novelty" tests also eliminates that justification.
Design Patent Infringement:
The Federal Circuit outlined the "ordinary observer" test of design patent infringement in its en banc Egyptian Goddess decision. Here, the court fleshed-out that test with further details and nuances. Infringement of a design patent requires proof that an "ordinary observer, familiar with the prior art designs, would be deceived into believing that the accused product is the same as the patented design." The hypothetical ordinary observer is considered to have knowledge of the prior art. Thus, "if the claimed design is close to the prior art designs, small differences between the accused design and the claimed design assume more importance to the eye of the hypothetical ordinary observer." "The ordinary observer test applies to the patented design in its entirety, as it is claimed. [Therefore, minor differences between a patented design and an accused article’s design cannot, and [do] not, prevent a finding of infringement.” (quoting Payless Shoesource and Litton Sys.).
The court again emphasized that the test considers the design as a whole and that the court should not use drawing details to create an infringement checklist because "concentration on small differences in isolation distract[s] from the overall impression of the claimed ornamental features." Rather, a better tool for determining infringement is a side-by-side comparison of the patented design and the accused product.
On the facts of this case, the Federal Circuit found that the allegedly infringing shoes were "nearly identical" to the patented design. "If the claimed design and the accused designs were arrayed in matching colors and mixed up randomly, this court is not confident that an ordinary observer could properly restore them to their original order without very careful and prolonged effort. . . . [T]his court perceives that the accused products embody the overall effect of the ’789 design in sufficient detail and clarity to cause market confusion. Thus, the accused products infringe the ’789 design."
In a decision of some interest for design patent utility patent holders alike, the Federal Circuit suggested what seems a tight definition of the domestic industry requirement of an ITC Section 337 action. The court wrote:
The test for the technical prong of the industry requirement “is essentially the same as that for infringement, i.e., a comparison of domestic products to the asserted claims.” Alloc, Inc. v. Int’l Trade Comm'n, 342 F.3d 1361, 1375 (Fed. Cir. 2003). In other words, the technical prong requires proof that the patent claims cover the articles of manufacture that establish the domestic industry. Put simply, the complainant must practice its own patent.