New USPTO Final Rule Establishes Separate Design Patent Bar

On November 16, 2023, the USPTO published a new final rule establishing the creation of a separate design patent bar. The final rule follows up on a notice of proposed rulemaking first published in May 2023 where the separate design patent bar was first contemplated. Currently there is only one patent bar which oversees everyone who practices in patent matters before the USPTO, regardless of whether they practice in design patents, utility patents, plant patents, or a combination thereof.

Traditionally, individuals seeking registration to practice in patent matters before the USPTO, including in utility, plant, and design patents, must be admitted to the patent bar. Eligibility for admission required an accredited college or university degree in limited technical subject areas (or an equivalent). These subjects are strictly limited to certain science and engineering degrees, such as biology, biochemistry, biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, computer engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, molecular biology, and other such degrees.2 This requirement applied regardless of the type of patent application the prospective practitioner was seeking to prosecute.

The USPTO points to an increasing number of design patent applications as the reason why they are implementing this new license. According to Kathi Vidal, Director of the USPTO, “Year over year we continue to receive more design patent applications, illustrating the importance of design protection to industry and our economy”. Vidal further stated, “Expanding the admission criteria of the patent bar encourages broader participation and keeps up with the ever-evolving technology and related teachings that qualify someone to practice before the USPTO.”

The new design patent bar would allow for applicants with a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degree in industrial design, product design, architecture, applied arts, graphic design, fine/studio arts, art teacher education, or an equivalent to take a modified patent bar exam to practice exclusively with regards to design patent cases. Design practitioners registered under the separate design bar will be required to place the word “design” (in any format) adjacent to their handwritten signature as well as adjacent to the last forward slash of their S-signature in order to indicate their design patent practitioner status.

The new rule will have no direct impact on patent practitioners already licensed to practice before the USPTO. Additionally, the existing patent bar exam remains unchanged, and applicants passing that exam will still be able to practice on all patent matters, including design patents. Professional and knowledgeable patent counsel that can navigate the different types of patent applications and practices are more important than ever. Maier & Maier has practitioners knowledgeable in all forms of patent practice, including attorneys with years of design patent experience.


USPTO Launches New Semiconductor Fast-Track Pilot Program

In order to support the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) Act of 2022 the USPTO announced on December 1, 2023, a new Semiconductor Technology Pilot Program for expediting the examination of patent applications for innovations that “increase semiconductor device production, reduce semiconductor manufacturing costs, and strengthen the semiconductor supply chain.” The CHIPS Act provided $280 billion in federal funding to encourage domestic production of semiconductor patents in the US, as well as to fund research and development projects.

Under the Semiconductor Technology Pilot Program qualifying patent applications will be advanced out of turn for examination until a first Office action is issued, which can greatly reduce the time spent waiting until examination of the patent begins. In order to enter the program a petition to make special must be filed, though no petition fee is required for qualifying applications, and the applicant is not required to satisfy the normal requirements of the accelerated examination program or the prioritized examination program. This program is similar to other recently implemented technology pilot programs, for example the Climate Change Mitigation Pilot Program, which went into effect in mid-2022.

To be eligible an application must be (a) a non-continuing original utility nonprovisional applications or (b) Original utility nonprovisional applications that claim the benefit of the filing date under 35 U.S.C. 120, 121, 365(c), or 386(c) of only one prior application that is either a nonprovisional application or an international application designating the United States. The pilot program is accepting petitions until December 2, 2024, or until a total of 1,000 applications have been granted special status under the program, whichever happens first.

This pilot program is exemplary of the USPTO’s push toward using programs to encourage specific kinds of innovation and patent applications. Professional and knowledgeable patent counsel who can help navigate these programs and advise you as to what options there are to take advantage of in your particular situation are more important than ever to help clients navigate the ever changing programs of the USPTO.


Design Day 2023: Highlights and Caselaw

On May 4th, 2023, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) hosted its annual Design Day event. As part of the event, speakers outlined design patent practice as well as discussed key developments in design patent law from 2022.

Karen Young, Director of Technology Center 2900 at the USPTO provided an update on the state of the Design Patent Technology Center. In recent years, design patents have continued to grow in popularity. In FY2021, the number of design patents filed increased by 17.6% to a total of 54,201 applications, a new record for the USPTO. FY2022 did not bring with it a regression to the mean, as the number of filings decreased by less than 1%, still north of 54,000 applications. Of these filings, the top three classes for design patents were D6, D12, and D14 (Furnishings, Transportation and Equipment respectively).

The average time before first action after filing was 17 months, with an average total pendency of 21.3 months. The number of design patents issued in FY2022 decreased slightly from an all time high of over 35,000 in 2020, but remained strong. As anticipated, Hague applications have increased however with China joining, up from 2,248 to 2,677 applications.

Later in the day, several significant decisions from the Federal Circuit, the District Courts, and the Patent Trial and Appeal Board were discussed.  We highlight those cases here:

LKQ Corporation v. GM Global Technology Operations

In January of this year, a panel court of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled on two cases brought against GM by alternative car parts manufacturer LKQ Corp who presented a novel argument that the longstanding tests for obviousness of design patents were implicitly overruled by the Supreme Court over fifteen years ago. LKQ Corporation v. GM Global Technology Operations, Case No. 21-2348 (per curiam) (Lourie, J., concurring) (Stark, J., concurring) (hereinafter the “fender” case); LKQ Corporation v. GM Global Technology Operations, Case No. 22-1253 (per curiam) (Lourie, J., concurring) (Stark, J., concurring) (hereinafter the “skid bar” case).

After failure to renegotiate a licensing agreement for several GM auto part design patents to LKQ, GM notified LKQ of pending infringement. In order to continue manufacturing and selling these parts without potential liability, LKQ filed for post-grant review to challenge the validity of GM’s U.S. Patent D797,625 in the “fender” case and GM’s U.S. Patent D855,508 in the “skid bar” case.

The USPTO Patent Trial and Appeal Board found in both cases that LKQ failed to show anticipation or obviousness where the ordinary observer includes retail and commercial purchasers of replacement parts. LKQ’s appeal to the Federal Circuit presented two arguments. First, that the Board erred in their selection of the ordinary observer by excluding purchasers of whole cars for which the patented parts are used in manufacturing. This alleged error would then invalidate the Board’s analysis of anticipation. Second, LKQ argues that the longstanding In re Rosen, 673 F.2d 388 (C.C.P.A. 1982) and Durling v. Spectrum Furniture Co., Inc., 101 F.3s 100 (Fed. Cir. 1996) combined test for obviousness was implicitly overruled by the Supreme Court in KSR International Co. v. Teleflex, Inc., 550 U.S. 398 (2007).

In both cases, the Appeals Court panel dismissed LKQ’s ordinary observer and anticipation argument. Federal Circuit precedent has repeatedly recognized that the ordinary observer may include the buyer of single component parts of a later-assembled product and is not restricted to solely the buyer of that later-assembled product.

The Court in its majority opinion, and Judge Lourie’s concurrence, refused to overrule Rosen and Durling based on KSR, but note a key caveat to their authority. In KSR the Supreme Court rejected “rigid mandatory formula[s]” as limits on obviousness for utility patents, instead adopting a flexible approach. The Court provided several reasons for rejecting LKQ’s argument that KSR implicitly applies to design patent obviousness and therefore invalidates the allegedly too rigid Rosen and Durling test. First, the Rosen and Durling test and design patents in general are not mentioned whatsoever in KSR. Further, KSR was decided over fifteen years ago and has never been applied to design patents. Additionally, Judge Lourie’s concurrence points to the different considerations applied in analysis of design and utility patent obviousness: generally objective properties are considered for utility patents while generally subjective properties are considered for design patents. KSR does not address any subjective obviousness considerations and therefore should not be applied to design patents.

Although the majority and concurring opinions present a strong position against application of KSR to design patents, the Court acknowledged that as a panel they lack authority to overrule existing precedent without a clear directive from the Supreme Court. LKQ’s novel argument may have failed on appeal but there remains a possibility that KSR’s rejection of rigidity will apply to design patents in the future by overruling Rosen and Durling.

 

Wepay Global Payments LLC Cases

Wepay Global Payments LLC v. PNC Bank N.A. No. 2:22-CV-00592-MJH(W.D. Pa. June 1, 2022)

Synopsis:

Wepay brought suit against PNC bank, claiming they were infringing on their patent on a graphical user interface consisting of three squares and a depicted price of $0.00.

Holding:

“[A] side-by-side comparison of WPG’sAsserted Design and PNC’s Accused Design demonstrates that they are ‘sufficiently distinct’ and ‘plainly dissimilar’ such that no reasonable factfinder could find infringement. Any similarity between the two designs is limited to basic geometric shapes, but with notable differences in shape size and spacing such that no ordinary observer would mistake the Accused Design with the Asserted Design or vice versa.”

Early Warning Services, LLC and Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. v. Wepay Global Payments LLC (PTAB February 9, 2023)

Synopsis:

Both Early Warning Systems (EWS) and Samsung Electronics (Samsung) requested review of the Wepay ‘702 patent mentioned above. In response, Wepay filed statutory disclaimers to narrow the scope of their ‘702 patent.

Holding:

Wepay, by disclaiming all figures and embodiments described in the ’702 patent, disclaimed the entire scope of the sole design claim at issue. While statutory disclaimers may help narrow a claim that may be invalid, they may also lead to adverse judgments before the PTAB, who may even issue a Final Written Decision finding the challenged claim unpatentable.

 

ABC Corp. v Partnership and Unincorporated Associations, 52 F.4th934 (Fed. Cir. 2022)

 Synopsis:

ABC Corp. brought suit claiming infringement of their hoverboard design patents. Their expert report claimed that the prior art was vastly different and thus the patent enjoys a very broad scope. The district court agreed and issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) followed by a preliminary injunction. The decision was appealed to the Federal Circuit.

Holding:

At appeal, the CAFC found the district court erred in multiple aspects. 1) The district court applied the wrong legal standard 2) The district court did not conduct ordinary observer analysis through the lens of the prior art. 3) the court failed to apply the ordinary observer test on a product-by-product basis, considering significant differences in the accused products themselves. 4) The language of the injunction itself was overbroad. It needed to be limited to products that were actually found to infringe.

 

Think Green Ltd. V Medela AG, No. 21 C 5445 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 7, 2022)

 Synopsis:

Think Green Ltd. filed suit claiming infringement by Medela AG for its silicone breast milk collector. The figures contained in Think Green’s patent were computer-generated images instead of the usual line drawings or photographs. With drawings, an inventor intending not to claim any particular material type would leave the drawings free of anything but contour lines, thereby claiming both an opaque and transparent surface. Photographs however strictly limit the design claim to the specific incarnation depicted in the photograph. Medela’s collector, while structurally similar to Think Green’s, is transparent and the computer-generated patent drawings were opaque.

Holding:

The court found that the computer-generated image constituted a choice of surface material. “Even if Medela’s product were exactly the same as Think Green’s design in all other aspects, . . . an ordinary observer would not find the translucent object to be substantially the same as the opaque object. Opaque and translucent objects are categorically different such that they are ‘plainly dissimilar’ and could not be confused by an ordinary observer.”

 

Ex parte Grede et al. (PTAB September 29, 2022)

Synopsis:

In ex parte Grede, a design patent application by Kim Kardashian’s company was denied by an examiner as anticipated from prior art. The examiner relied on a figure depicting only “a fragmentary, front view of the right stocking unit.”

Holding:

On appeal, the PTAB emphasized that the ordinary observer test is used by considering the design as a whole, not in fragments. While relying on less than the entire claim may be appropriate when the applicant has chosen to claim only a portion of the article of manufacture, here the entire article is being claimed. Thus, the denial based on anticipation was inappropriate. An examiner may not cite only a portion of a reference product against the product as a whole. The examiner must compare either two designs for articles of manufacture or two portions of a design.

 

Ex parte Timothy Smith (PTABJanuary 31, 2022)

Synopsis:

In ex parte Timothy Smith, an examiner denied a claimed GUI design based on a composite illustration of 3 independent designs. The resulting image differed from the claimed design only in proportions. The examiner argued that “mere variations in orientation, dimension, proportion, and spacing do not make the claimed design sufficiently different in ornamental appearance.”

Holding:

“To the extent the Examiner is attempting to extract from King a hard and fast rule that all changes in dimension are per se unpatentable advances, the Examiner’s reliance upon this authority is misplaced. To the extent the Examiner is attempting to extract from Stevens a hard and fast rule that all changes in proportion are per se unpatentable advances, the Examiner’s reliance upon this authority is misplaced.”

 

Ideavillage Products Corp. v Konkinklijke Philips N.V

Synopsis:

Ideavillage filed a Petition requesting post-grant review of Konkinklijke Philips N. V’s ‘346 design patent. They presented 42 separate obviousness challenges using unique combinations of references presented, but failed to provide sufficient separate analyses for each combination.

Holding:

“None of the 42 obviousness challenges advanced in the Petition is supported by an adequate analysis. . . In particular, none sufficiently discusses both the differences between the claimed and prior art designs and how any primary reference would have been modified (alone or in view of any other reference) to have the same visual appearance as the claimed design.” The proper steps to an obviousness challenge are as follows:

  • Find a primary reference (a single reference, something in existence, the design characteristics of which are basically the same as the claimed design).
    • BUT also provide an explanation as to how the primary reference is basically the same as the claimed design despite particular differences between the two designs.
  • Use secondary reference(s) to modify the primary reference to create a design that has the same overall visual appearance as the claimed design.
    • BUT also provide an explanation as to how and why the primary reference(s) would have been modified to arrive at a design that has the same overall visual appearance as the claimed design.

For more information and analysis regarding any of these cases and the impact they may have on your IP rights, please feel free to reach out to Maier & Maier.


USPTO Transitions to Electronic Patent Grants

The USPTO recently announced through the publishing of a new Federal Register final rule (88 Fed. Reg. 12560) that effective Tuesday, April 18, 2023 all newly issued patents will be issued electronically. Electronically issued patents will bear the digital signature of the USPTO director, and the corresponding patent cover sheet will be nearly identical to current cover sheets; however, they will include the seal and Director’s signature in digital form. As an additional update the new official USPTO digital seal will serve as authentication of the patent, and will include an encrypted digital signature embedded within the seal.

Eventually patents will no longer be issued in paper form and will be digital only, however there will be a yet-to-be determined transition period where a paper copy of the electronic patent will be provided as a courtesy. The courtesy copy will be mailed to the correspondence address of record. After the transition period ceremonial copies or presentation copies (certified copy of the front page that can be used for display) will be available for nominal fees. Advance copies of issued patents however will no longer be available for purchase.

Moving to electronic Patent grants will, according to the office, reduce pendency of patent applications, foster a green economy by reducing paper waste, and permit issued patents to be viewed and printed by applicants and the public immediately upon issuance in patent center. As a practical matter, the move to electronic grants will have some impact on patent practice, particularly with regards to continuation practice. Under the current system there is typically a delay of several weeks between the mailing of the issue notice and the actual issue date of the patent. Under the electronic patent process, the Office notes that patents will issue “shortly after the patent number and issue date are assigned, which will result in the reduction of pendency for allowed patent applications.” This means Applicants will have less time between the payment of the issue fee and grant, and therefore less time to file continuations, quick path Information Disclosure Statements, or petitions to withdraw an application from issue under 37 CFR 1.313(c). In line with this change the Patent Office recommends that going forward all these filings should be done as early as possible, and particularly with respect to continuations should be preferably done before the payment of the issue fee.

The above rule is just one of many steps the Patent Office has taken towards digitizing their processes. For example, the Patent Office also finalized another rule (88 Fed. Reg. 13028) the same week as the above which establishes that effective May 1, 2023 all “patent term extension (PTE) applications, interim PTE applications, and any related submission to the USPTO must be submitted electronically via the USPTO patent electronic filing system”. Professional and knowledgeable patent counsel are more important than ever to help clients navigate the ever changing and advancing systems of the USPTO.


United States Patent and Trademark Office Expands Prioritized Examination (Track One) Program

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has further expanded their Track One prioritized examination program by increasing the annual limit on accepted requests. Previously, the USPTO only accepted 12,000 Track One requests per fiscal year, but this announcement increases the limit to 15,000 requests per year.

Track One expedites the patent prosecution process by allowing applicants to receive a final disposition (such as a notice of allowance or final rejection) of a patent application within twelve months from the date of the Track One request.

This is an important development, since Track One allows applicants to avoid lengthy prosecution with less requirements than other prioritized examination programs. An application under Track One typically receives a final disposition in under six months on average. Non-track one applications, however, don’t even receive a first office action for over 16 months, and remain pending for an average of 23.2 months.

At Maier & Maier we take pride in developing sophisticated patent portfolios for our clients and are well equipped to navigate and take advantage of the Track One, Patent Prosecution Highway, or other programs offered by the USPTO.


Overcoming Sect. 101 Rejections: USPTO Guidance, Recent Decisions to Meet Sect. 101 Patent Eligibility Requirements

Maier & Maier is pleased to announce that distinguished partner, Stephen Kunin, will be speaking in an upcoming Strafford live video webinar, “Overcoming Sect. 101 Rejections: USPTO Guidance, Recent Decisions to Meet Sect. 101 Patent Eligibility Requirements” scheduled for Tuesday, April 27, 1:00pm-2:30pm EDT.

We encourage anyone interested in Section 101 issues at the USPTO to tune in.  The panel will review case law, USPTO guidance, and offer response strategies.

For more information or to register >