As part of the World Intellectual Property Day celebration on April 26, the Supreme People's Court released 10 landmark intellectual property cases and 50 illustrative intellectual property cases of 2015. Among them, a design patent infringement case involving Zhejiang Jianlong Sanitary Ware Co., Ltd. as the petitioner and Grohe AG as the respondent [2015 Min-Ti-Zi No. 23] clarifies in detail the determination of functional design features.
One of the key issues involved is whether the push button on the handle in the concerned design patent is a functional design feature.
The Supreme People's Court held that a functional design feature refers to one that is solely determined by a function to be fulfilled by a product without considering aesthetic factors to an ordinary consumer of the design product. Under normal circumstances, a designer will consider both functional and aesthetic factors when designing the appearance of a product. Provided that the function of the product is fulfilled, improvement is made in compliance with human nature and rules. In other words, a product must first fulfill its function, and then present visual aesthetics. For a particular feature in a design, it will be both functional and ornamental in most cases. A designer will choose a design that offers the best aesthetics out of a selection of designs that can fulfill a specific function. Designs that are decided solely by specific functions occur only in rare cases. Therefore, there are two kinds of functional design features: the only one design to fulfill a specific function; and one of many designs that can fulfill a specific function and is decided solely by the specific function without involving aesthetic factors. Determination of a functional design feature lies not in whether the design is not selectable due to functional or technical restrictions, but in whether the design is solely determined by a specific function without involving aesthetics to the ordinary consumer of the design product. In general, a functional design feature does not have a significant impact on the overall visual effect of the design. The impact of a design feature that is both functional and aesthetic on the overall visual effect will have to be determined by the degree of decorativeness. A higher degree of decorativeness will lead to a stronger impact on the overall visual effect, and a lower degree a smaller impact.
Regarding this case in particular, the Supreme People's Court held that a push button serves as a switch to control water flow and whether to install a push button is decided by the function whether it is necessary to fulfill water flow control on a shower head. However, there could be many push button designs for installing a push button on the handle of a shower head. When the ordinary consumer sees the push button on the handle of the shower head, the consumer naturally will pay attention to its decorativeness and considers its aesthetics instead of only considering whether the push button is able to control water flow. The designer involved in this case chose to design the push button on the handle in a shape similar to a race track. The purpose is to match the outlet having race-track shape and make the product visually more pleasing as a whole. Hence, the Supreme People's Court ruled that the push button in the design patent is not a functional design feature.