On July 1, 2014, MRC Innovations filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari in the Supreme Court of the United States.  As we previously discussed on April 22, 2014, in MRC Innovations, Inc. v. Hunter Mfg., LLP, No. 2013-1433 (Fed. Cir., Apr. 2, 2014), the Federal Circuit addressed the obviousness of patents (i.e., D634,488 and D634,487) covering ornamental designs for dog jerseys.

Figures from the ‘488 patent are reproduced below:

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Figures from the ’487 patent are reproduced below:

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MRC appealed a grant of summary judgment of obviousness of both patents  issued by Judge Gaughan from the Northern District of Ohio.  The Federal Circuit affirmed.

In the Petition, MRC proposes a question as to whether the principle set forth in KSR Int’l v. Co. v. Teleflex, Inc., 550 U.S. 398 (2007), "that when making an obviousness determination under 35 U.S.C. § 103 a court must provide an explicit analysis regarding whether there was an apparent reason to combine the known elements in the fashion claimed by the patent, also applies to design patents." Petition, page i.

The Petition argues "[a]s properly noted by the Federal Circuit more than 30 years ago, '35 U.S.C. § 103 (and all the case law interpreting that statute) applies with equal force to a determination of the obviousness of either a design or utility patent.' Litton Systems, Inc. v. Whirlpool Corp., 728 F.2d 1423, 1441 (Fed. Cir. 1984)," but that "the Federal Circuit has significantly departed from this Court’s case law regarding 35 U.S.C. § 103 insofar as design patents are concerned." Petition, page 5.

Citing to KSR, the Petition argues that instead of a court providing "an explicit analysis explaining the apparent reason to combine known elements in the fashion claimed by the patent" for design patent cases, the Federal Circuit has rather relied on a "'so related' test in design patent cases that, when applied, entirely dispenses with the requirement that the court articulate whether there was an apparent reason (i.e., a “basis”) to combine the known elements in the fashion claimed by the patent." Petition, pages 5-6.

In summary, MRC is arguing that the court must articulate a rationale for combining teachings of the prior art to arrive at the claimed design.  In utility patent cases, this "rationale" must be articulated, consistent with KSR.  See the exemplary rationales identified in MPEP 2143.

The Petition argues that the Federal Circuit erred by merely requiring that certain elements of the claimed design be found in a related prior art, and that such a "so related" test is an "over simplification that substitutes relatedness for obviousness." Petition, page 18.

In some aspects, it appears MRC is arguing that the Federal Circuit applied a test similar to determining whether a prior art reference is analogous art.  In re Klein, 98 USPQ2d 1991 (Fed. Cir. June 2011), established two tests for determining whether a reference is analogous and thus qualifies as prior art for an obviousness determination, citing to In re Bigio, 381 F.3d 1320, 1325 (Fed. Cir. 2004):

Two separate tests define the scope of analogous prior art:

  1. whether the art is from the same field of endeavor, regardless of the problem addressed and,
  2. if the reference is not within the field of the inventor’s endeavor, whether the reference still is reasonably pertinent to the particular problem with which the inventor is involved.

The USPTO issued examination guidance in view of In re Klein on July 26, 2011, which emphasized that a "reference not in the same field of endeavor as the claimed invention must be reasonably pertinent to the problem to be solved in order to qualify as analogous art and be applied in an obviousness rejection."

Turning back to the "so related" test discussed in the Petition, this test appears to be a summarization of the analogous art tests discussed above.  Specifically, a reference is "so related" when it is in the same field of endeavor (first test) or when the reference is reasonably pertinent to the particular problem with which the inventor is involved (second test).  For design cases, this second test may have limited applicability, because evaluation of the issue (at least as established by the USPTO in the examination guidance) requires a review of the problem to be solved by the claimed design, which may be difficult given there is generally no detailed discussion of problems in design applications.

However, merely concluding a prior art reference that teaches a specific design element is in the same field of endeavor, and is thus "so related," does not result in a proper and complete conclusion of obviousness.  Specifically, the Supreme Court in KSR, 550 U.S. at 418, quoting In re Kahn, 441 F.3d 977, 988, 78 USPQ2d 1329, 1336 (Fed. Cir. 2006), stated “rejections on obviousness cannot be sustained by mere conclusory statements; instead, there must be some articulated reasoning with some rational underpinning to support the legal conclusion of obviousness.” 

Consequently, it appears MRC is arguing that the Federal Circuit merely applied a test to determine whether a prior art reference is analogous (i.e., "so related") in determining whether prior art design elements can render a design obvious, without establishing an "articulated reasoning" for combining the prior art design elements to arrive at the claimed design.  Specifically, the Petition argues the “'so related' test allows for ... random picking and choosing of elements from the prior art without articulating any reasons or basis for doing so," and is thus not in accordance with the principle of KSR.