In recent years, design patents have taken on increased importance in the technology world as demonstrated in the recent series of high profile Apple v. Samsung litigations. Design patents have also become an important method of protection for designers in the fashion industry.
Historically, copyrights, design patents, and utility patents afforded little or no protection in the fashion industry, at least in the United States.1 However, a February 22, 2017 decision2 (the “Decision”) of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“PTAB”) of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), involving design patents for an innovative series of convertible bridesmaid dresses may change the playing field for the fashion industry and may signify the growing importance of design patents in the world of fashion.
Jenny Yoo Collection, Inc. (“JY”) is a successful designer of clothing and related items for the wedding industry and has aggressively used copyrights, trademarks and design patents to protect its business goodwill and to secure its intellectual property rights. The Decision involves fashion designer Jenny Yoo’s design patents covering her highly successful, original design for convertible bridesmaid dresses. The dresses include two front and two rear panels that seamlessly blend into the skirt and create different “looks” when raised into different positions by the wearer of the dress. Jenny Yoo’s company, JY, which Jenny Yoo founded and leads as its Chief Executive Officer, applied for and obtained two design patents covering the design of a convertible dress and aggressively sought to enforce its patents against competitors and knock-off artists by instituting four law suits (to date) in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York seeking damages for patent infringement as well as trademark and trade dress infringement and unfair competition.
One of the defendants in these suits, David’s Bridal, Inc. (“DBI”), a major competitor of JY, attempted to challenge the validity of one of JY’s design patents by requesting that the United States Patent and Trademark Office institute a Post Grant Review (“PGR”) proceeding, a type of proceeding which was recently authorized by Congress in connection with the enactment of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (“AIA”) which was signed into law by then President Obama on September 16, 2011. DBI was attempting to thwart JY’s enforcement of its design patents by taking advantage of the recently adopted PGR proceedings, which allows for any person who is not the owner of a patent to file a petition with the USPTO to institute a PGR proceeding to review the validity of issued patents. Following adoption of the AIA, accused infringers have frequently instituted such petitions as part of their strategy to make it more difficult and costly for patent owners to enforce their patents and recover for infringements thereof. The PGR proceeding which was instituted by DBI appears to be the first PGR proceeding involving a design patent and certainly the first involving a design patent covering an item of fashion clothing.
In its PGR petition, DBI argued that United States Patent D744,723 (the ‘723 Patent) was not entitled to the priority date of an earlier patent also issued to JY, issued United States Patent D698,120 (the ‘120 Patent”), even though the two patents were derived from the same original patent application. DBI asserted that if the divisional ‘723 Patent was not entitled to the priority date of the ‘120 Patent, then the ‘723 Patent would be invalid because of certain cited prior art. The prior art relied upon by DBI would have been irrelevant if the’723 Patent was entitled to the priority date of its parent ‘120 Patent. If DBI’s gambit in the PGR proceeding was successful, it might have prevented JY from enforcing its ‘723 Patent against infringers.
DBI’s challenge to the priority date was based on an attack on the adequacy of the drawings submitted in the original application for the ‘120 Patent. It should be noted that in the context of design patents, the drawings submitted in an application collectively constitute the claim of the patent3 and form the basis for any claim of infringement. DBI asserted that the drawings were not sufficient to satisfy the “written description” and “enablement” requirements of applicable patent law and that three new drawings submitted by JY in support of the application for the ‘723 Patent introduced “new matter” which would have disqualified the ‘723 Patent from entitlement to the earlier priority date. Had DBI been successful in its challenge to the adequacy of the original drawings based on the written description and enablement requirements, there would have been significant doubt about the validity of the ‘723 Patent as well as doubt about the validity of design patents generally in the fashion industry, since most design patents in the fashion industry are based on drawings of similar nature and quality as those which DBI challenged.
Importantly to the fashion industry, the PTAB rejected DBI’s challenge to the original drawings submitted by JY. On February 22, 2017, a three-member panel of the PTAB issued a decision denying institution of the PGR proceeding and found that the original drawings submitted by JY were sufficient to show that JY was in possession of the embodiments of the invention covered by both the parent ‘120 Patent and the ‘723 Patent. The PTAB rejected DBI’s argument that three new drawings submitted in prosecution of the ’723 Patent constituted “new matter” which was not supported by the drawings in the application for the ‘120 Patent.
In reaching this conclusion, the PTAB rejected DBI’s argument that minor discrepancies or inconsistencies in individual drawings were sufficient to support a finding that “new matter” was introduced in the application for the ‘723 Patent. Importantly for the fashion industry, the PTAB explicitly rejected DBI’s focus on minor discrepancies and inconsistencies in individual drawings.
Instead, the PTAB found that a proper analysis under the written description and enablement requirements required collective review of all of the drawings submitted in the original application as a whole depiction of the invention. Focusing only on individual drawings out of context from the others would be legal error.
Applying this approach, the PTAB concluded that the three new drawings submitted by JY in support of the application for the ‘723 Patent did not add “new matter,” but simply “naturally amplified and exemplified” the invention as shown collectively in the drawings that were contained in the original application for the ‘120 Patent. The PTAB found the three new drawings were a reasonably accurate depiction of what the eleven drawings of the original application for the ‘120 Patent collectively disclosed about the design features of the dress, leading to the conclusion that JY had possession of the features shown in the new drawings at the time of the filing of the original application for the ’120 Patent.