The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) recently issued a precedential opinion in In re Owens, affirming the BPAI’s rejection of Owens et al.'s design patent application 29/253,172.  The opinion at p. 2 states that the "’172 application, which is the subject of this appeal, is a continuation of U.S. Design Patent Application No. 29/219,709 (filed Dec. 21, 2004) (“’709 application”). The ’709 application claimed a design for a bottle," with boundaries as shown, e.g., in Figure 2 (left): 

Click here to view figure 2.

Owens filed the ’172 application in 2006, seeking the benefit of the ’709 application’s 2004 priority date under 35 U.S.C. § 120.  The ’172 application claimed certain design elements found on the top and side portions of the original bottle, as depicted in Figure 2 (above, center).

The Examiner rejected the '172 application under 35 USC 112, ¶ 1, for including new matter, as well as being obvious in view of Owens' earlier-sold bottles (obviousness hinged on whether the '172 application was entitled to the benefit of the '709 application's filing date).  The BPAI affirmed the Examiner's rejection, finding that "Owens had claimed previously undisclosed 'trapezoidal sections occupying part, but not all, of the surface area of the front and back panels.'" See Figure 2, above, right.

Owens argued that the BPAI applied an incorrect written description test to his case because the '172 application did not claim a trapezoidal-shaped area at all, "insist[ing] that in order to claim a new design element, one must first claim a new boundary." The trapezoidal-shaped area identified by the Examiner was bounded by a broken-line boundary, an "unclaimed boundary," and it is "understood that the claimed design extends to the boundary but does not include the boundary." MPEP § 1503.02.

The CAFC characterized Owens’ arguments as being “premised on the notion that an applicant who has possession of an entire area in a parent application must likewise possess all parts of the area.”  The CAFC found that these arguments misconstrue its holding in In re Daniels, stating that “[i]t does not follow from Daniels that an applicant, having been granted a claim to a particular design element, may proceed to subdivide that element in subsequent continuations however he pleases.”

On the contrary, the CAFC stated that “the question for written description purposes is whether a skilled artisan would recognize upon reading the parent’s disclosure that the trapezoidal top portion of the front panel might be claimed separately from the remainder of that area. [Ariad Pharm., Inc. v. Eli Lilly & Co., 598 F.3d 1336, 1351 (Fed. Cir. 2010) (en banc)]." According to the court, “Owens’s parent application discloses a design for a bottle with an undivided pentagonal center-front panel, whereas the continuation claims only the trapezoidal top portion of that center-front panel.” Because the parent application did not suggest anything uniquely patentable about the top portion of the bottle, the CAFC affirmed the Board's decision.

When asked "whether, and under what circumstances, Owens could introduce an unclaimed boundary line on his center-front panel and still receive the benefit of § 120," the CAFC stated:

"In our view, the best advice for future applicants was presented in the PTO’s brief, which argued that unclaimed boundary lines typically should satisfy the written description requirement only if they make explicit a boundary that already exists, but was unclaimed, in the original disclosure. Although counsel for the PTO conceded at oral argument that he could not reconcile all past allowances under this standard, he maintained that all future applications will be evaluated according to it."

Note that MPEP § 1503.02 indicates "[w]here no boundary line is shown in a design application as originally filed, but it is clear from the design specification that the boundary of the claimed design is a straight broken line connecting the ends of existing full lines defining the claimed design, applicant may amend the drawing(s) to add a straight broken line connecting the ends of existing full lines defining the claimed subject matter." However, this would not have aided Owens, as a straight broken line would only have defined a larger trapezoidal area, resulting in the same written description problems.