By Dennis Crouch
In re Owens (Fed. Cir. 2013) (decision pending)
In 2006, P&G obtained a design patent for its Crest brand mouthwash bottle. D531,515. Before that patent issued, the company filed a continuation application and eventually amended the drawings to use ghost-lines (dashed lines) for most of the bottle design and solid design lines for only a small portion of the bottle surface.
In the figures below, the drawing on the left is the design drawing originally filed in the specification and issued in the D'515 patent. The drawing on the right is found in the continuation and the subject of this appeal. In design patents, the drawings are of critical importance because the single allowable design patent claim typically ties the scope of enforceable right to the drawings. Here, for instance, in the D'515 design patent P&G claims "the ornamental design for a bottle, as shown and described."
Now, for claim purposes, ghosted lines have essentially no meaning and are given no weight. Thus, the continuation below claims a portion of the bottle base. The focus of the litigation is on the front portion of the bottle that previously claimed an inverted irregular pentagon and now appears to be limited to only the upper portion of that pentagon in a roughly trapezoidal shape. The base of the trapezoid is ghosted, but the drawing does claim the surface up to the ghosted line. In the photo of the Crest bottle to the right, you can see the inverted pentagon design is created by a label sticker.
During prosecution, the PTO rejected P&G's continuation application -- concluding that the new claim (as shown in the drawing) did not satisfy the written description requirement of 35 U.S.C. § 112(a). In other words, it is not apparent from the originally filed specification that that the inventor was at that time in possession of the invention as now claimed. P&G's argument is that the area being claimed was already disclosed in the original application and that is literally true. The PTO responds, however, that the original application did disclose a break-point for the trapezoidal area now being claimed. In other words, nothing in the original application indicates that the portion now claimed could itself be a design. The PTO has proposed a rule it feels is administrable: applicants can amend claims by "ghosting" solid lines and vice-versa, but applicants cannot further partition areas or define new portions without running afoul of the written description requirement.
Design patents are largely governed by the same rules as utility patents. This is often unfortunate because the policy goals supporting many of the (utility) patent rules do not map well to the world of design rights. Designs are, for the most part, being used as an additional layer of trademark (trade dress) protection rather than as an incentive to invest in the invention of new designs. This case fits that mold well. But, it is the patent laws that we follow.
In thinking about the written description requirement, a good beginning approach is to try to first uncover the best analogy to utility patent doctrine. One analogy might be to subgenus & subrange claims. Utility patents regularly disclose and claim concentration level ranges, such as "concentration of cardiolipin is between 0.02 and 0.04%." When impinging prior art is discovered, one solution is to amend the claim scope to narrow the claims - perhaps to change the concentration to "between 0.02 and 0.03%." However, the written description requirements limits an applicant's ability to make this narrowing amendment unless there is some evidence that the applicant had (at the time of the application filing date) possession of the invention with the narrower range as well. For these points, the M.P.E.P. cites In re Smith, 458 F.2d 1389 (CCPA 1972) (a subgenus is not necessarily described by a genus encompassing it and a species upon which it reads) and In re Lukach, 442 F.2d 967 (CCPA 1971) (subgenus range was not supported by generic disclosure and specific example within the subgenus range). Of course, the amendment by P&G in the present case is not a narrowing amendment but rather might better be seen as a broadening amendment – of course, broader and narrower in design patent law is somewhat difficult to define. The written description requirement is also used to invalidate claims that have been broadened by eliminating claim limitations. Such cases include ICU Medical v. Alaris Medical System (Fed. Cir. 2009) and the often maligned Gentry Gallery, Inc. v. Berkline Corp., 134 F.3d 1473 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (claims to a sectional sofa comprising, inter alia, a console and a control means were held invalid for failing to satisfy the written description requirement where the claims were broadened by removing the location of the control means). See also MPEP § 2172.01.
All-in-all, the PTO's position makes sense to me – that nothing in the new original application suggests the claim limit as suggested by P&G. Design patent claims are considered "as a whole" and refocusing only on a small portion of a design can dramatically alter the impact and overall feel of the design. In the ordinary doctrine of patent law, such a potentially dramatic change in claim scope is only allowed if the original disclosure evidences that the inventor possessed the refocused invention at the time of filing. It is reasonable here to say that Owens did not possess that new invention as now claimed. Here, we should be keen to recognize that the written description requirement is separate and distinct from the enablement requirement – even though both arise from the same statutory phrase in Section 112. Here, there is no question that the enablement requirement is met.
The kicker for the PTO in this case is that written description is a question of fact and PTO determinations on questions of fact are given substantial deference on review by the PTO. There is hardly any question in my mind that the PTO's position passes that low threshold.
The case was recently argued before Judges Prost, Moore, and Wallach. This panel is interesting because of Judge Moore's famous pre-nomination article on the problems of patent continuations. This case arises out of a continuation. P&G wants to claim priority back to the original filing date because the original patent had already been out for more than a year by the time that the amended claims were introduced in the continuation. Thus, if it cannot claim priority then its original work will serve as prior art to block this later patent from issuing. A decision is expected later this spring.
In the trade dress world, this mess would not make such a difference because we don't worry about prior art but rather priority in the marketplace. But again, in the US, design patent rights are squarely within the pigeon hole of patent law.