US: Précisions sur l’interprétation d’un “design”

L’affaire Crocs, Inc. v. US International Trade Commission (ITC) (Fed. Cir. 2010) fait suite à une enquête de l’ITC (US International Trade Commission) à savoir si des copies importées des célèbres soulier “Crocs” enfreignaient les droits de Crocs” (brevet US No. 6,993,858 et design No. D. 517789). Après investigation, l’ITC n’a pas conclué en la contrefaçon et de plus que le brevet était évident.

En ce qui a trait au design, la Federal Circuit a jugé l’approche de l’ITC erronée quant à l’interprétation de la portée de la protection et a statué qu’habituellement:

“…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.”

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.