By Anne-Raphaelle Aubry
| January 10, 2014
In 2011, Pacific Coast Marine Windshields Limited (Pacific Coast) brought suit (No. 12-CV-0033) against Malibu Boats, LLC (Malibu) in the Middle District of Florida, alleging infringement of U.S. Patent No. D555,070. The District Court held that Pacific Coast was barred from alleging infringement due to prosecution history estoppel, and Pacific Coast appealed. 

On January 8, 2014, the Federal Circuit held that “the principles of prosecution history estoppel apply to design patents” but reversed the district court’s summary judgment of non-infringement because “the accused infringing design was not within the scope of the subject matter surrendered during prosecution.”

A design patent application filed in 2006 by Darren Bach, CEO of Pacific Coast, depicted various embodiments of the claimed ornamental design for a marine windshield with configurations including zero, two, and four vent holes on a corner post.  In response to a restriction requirement, the applicant elected a group corresponding to a single figure with four vent holes, and canceled the remaining figures.  Mr. Bach later obtained a patent for a divisional of the originally filed application, claiming a windshield with no vent holes.  The application issued as D555,070.

Figure 1 of the ‘070 patent is reproduced below.



The accused infringing design of Malibu Boats is a boat windshield with three trapezoidal holes, as shown below.



The District Court granted Malibu Boats’ motion for summary judgment of non-infringement, finding that prosecution history estoppel barred the infringement claim.  The District Court’s decision recognized that the accused design had one fewer vent hole but explained that ‘“the accused design is still clearly within the territory [surrendered] between the original claim and amended claim.’”

On appeal, the Federal Circuit noted that the doctrine of prosecution history estoppel is well established for utility patents, but that the concept of prosecution history estoppel as applied to design patents was “one of first impression” for the court.  For utility patents, the doctrine of prosecution history estoppel prevents a patentee from recapturing in an infringement action subject matter which was surrendered during prosecution.

The Federal Circuit noted that “for design patents, the concepts of literal infringement and equivalents infringement are intertwined,” and stated that accordingly “the test for design patent infringement is not identity, but rather sufficient similarity.” Furthermore, the Federal Circuit acknowledged that Pacific Coast had “characterized the substantial similarity between the accused designs and the ‘070 patent as the basis for an infringement claim ‘under the doctrine of equivalents.’” The Federal Circuit concluded that “the principles of prosecution history estoppel apply to design patents as well as utility patents.”

The Federal Circuit then addressed the question of whether the prosecution history estoppel barred infringement in this case.

The Court determined that there was a surrender of claim scope during prosecution, and that “by removing broad claim language referring to alternate configurations and cancelling the individual figures showing the unelected embodiments, the applicant narrowed the scope of his original application, and surrendered subject matter.”

In addition, the Federal Circuit noted that the claim scope was surrendered to secure the patent, but not to avoid prior art.  Whereas Pacific Coast argued that only surrenders to avoid prior art were within the doctrine, the Federal Circuit cited Festo stating that “the rationale behind prosecution history estoppel ‘does not cease simply because the narrowing amendment, submitted to secure a patent, was for some purpose other than avoiding prior art.’”

With respect to the scope of the surrender, the District Court had determined  that the accused design was within the scope of the surrender, i.e., that by abandoning a design with two holes and obtaining patents on designs with four holes and no holes, the range between four and zero was abandoned.  In contrast, the Federal Circuit stated that “this range concept does not work in the context of design patents where ranges are not claimed, but rather individual designs.” The Federal Circuit further noted that “the applicant surrendered the claimed design with two holes on the windshield corner post, but neither submitted nor surrendered any three-hole design.”

Thus, the Federal Circuit held that the prosecution history estoppel principles apply to design patents, but do not bar Pacific Coast’s infringement claim, and remanded for further proceedings.

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