In 1995, Dyson Ltd. launched its DC02 cylinder cleaner. This became a design classic and won numerous awards. The UK registered design in issue in this case in general terms protected the DC02.
Dyson sued Vax Ltd. for infringement of its registered design in relation to Vax's "Mach Zen" multi-stage cyclonic cylinder vacuum cleaner, which was launched in 2009.
Infringement – Article 9 Design Directive
The UK's Registered Designs Act 1949 has been amended to implement the European Design Directive and so the UK test for infringement is the same as set out in Article 9(1) of the Design Directive which provides that:
"The scope of the protection conferred by a design right shall include any design which does not produce on the informed user a different overall impression."
Having considered in some detail nine key similarities between the registered design and the Mach Zen cleaner (relied on by Dyson) and six key differences (relied on by Vax) the judge considered the overall impressions from the perspective of the informed user – in this case, a knowledgeable user of domestic vacuum cleaners. The judge held that the overall impression of the DC02 design was smooth, curving and elegant whilst the Mach Zen produced a different overall impression, described by the judges as being rugged, angular and industrial. Accordingly, the Mach Zen cleaner did not infringe.
The technical function test for excluded design features
An important aspect of this case related to the transparent dust bin, through which the cyclone shroud is visible in each machine (seen on the left side of each machine). Vax argued that this feature was excluded from protection under Article 7 of the Design Directive, which states that:
"A design right shall not subsist in features of appearance of a product which are solely dictated by its technical function."
Dyson relied on an interpretation of Article 7, endorsed by the English Court of Appeal in 2006, namely "Is the appearance of the design solely dictated (i.e. driven without option) by the technical function?" However the judge concluded that he was not bound by the Court of Appeal's judgment on this point and preferred the interpretation given to Article 7 by an OHIM Board of Appeal. This interpretation results in protection being denied to features of a product's appearance that were (when viewed objectively) chosen exclusively for the purpose of designing a product that performs its function. Protection is not denied to features that were chosen, at least to some degree, for the purpose of enhancing the product's visual appearance. Here, the judge found that the DC02's transparent bin was chosen for a mixture of technical and aesthetic reasons and so was not excluded from protection by Article 7.
The guidance offered by the High Court on this issue is welcome because in some circumstances the test endorsed by the Court of Appeal could potentially operate to frustrate the purpose of the "solely dictated by technical function" exclusion, which is to prevent monopolies over technical solutions by way of design rights.