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Automotive Body Parts Association v. Ford Global Technologies, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit

July 11, 2019


          Public Opinion Issued: July 23, 2019 [*]

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in No. 2:15-cv-10137-LJM-RSW, Judge Laurie J. Michelson.

          Robert Glenn Oake, Jr., Oake Law Office, Allen, TX, argued for plaintiff-appellant. Also represented by Paul Kittinger, Cardelli Lanfear PC, Royal Oak, MI.

          Jessica Lynn Ellsworth, Hogan Lovells U.S. LLP, Washington, DC, argued for defendant-appellee. Also represented by Katherine Booth Wellington; Frank A. Angileri, Marc Lorelli, Brooks Kushman PC, Southfield, MI.

          Before Hughes, Schall, and Stoll, Circuit Judges.

          Stoll, Circuit Judge.

         This case involves both differences and similarities between design patents and utility patents. A design patent protects a "new, original and ornamental design for an article of manufacture." 35 U.S.C. § 171(a). While established law bars design patents on primarily functional designs for lack of ornamentality, utility patents must be functional to be patentable. In many other ways though, design and utility patents are similar. Section 171(b) of Title 35 demands as much, directing that the requirements that apply to "patents for inventions shall apply to patents for designs" unless otherwise provided.

         Here, we decide what types of functionality invalidate a design patent and determine whether long-standing rules of patent exhaustion and repair rights applicable to utility patents also apply to design patents. Automotive Body Parts Association (ABPA) asks us to hold that the aesthetic appeal-rather than any mechanical or utilitarian aspect-of a patented design may render it functional. And it asks us to expand the doctrines of exhaustion and repair to recognize the "unique nature" of design patents. Both theories invite us to rewrite established law to permit ABPA to evade Ford Global Technologies, LLC's patent rights. We decline ABPA's invitation and affirm the district court's summary judgment.



         Ford's U.S. Patent No. D489, 299 and U.S. Patent No. D501, 685 protect designs used in certain models of Ford's F-150 trucks. The D'299 patent, titled "Exterior of Vehicle Hood," claims "[t]he ornamental design for exterior of vehicle hood." Figure 1, below, illustrates the hood.

         (Image Omitted)

         The D'685 patent, titled "Vehicle Head Lamp," claims "[t]he ornamental design for a vehicle head lamp," as shown in Figures 1 and 2, reproduced below.

         (Image Omitted)

         The inventors of these designs are artists holding Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees from the College for Creative Studies. In a declaration, one inventor explained that the inventors had "full control and responsibility for the exterior appearance of the . . . Ford F-150 truck," that "the design team created and selected part designs based on aesthetic appearance," and that although engineers reviewed the final designs, "[t]here were no changes to the aesthetic designs of the[] parts based on engineering or functional requirements." J.A. 2538-39.


         ABPA, an association of companies that distribute automotive body parts, clashed with Ford at the International Trade Commission when Ford accused a number of ABPA members of infringing the D'299 and D'685 patents, among others. The ITC actions eventually settled, but only after the administrative law judge ruled that "respondents' [invalidity] defense that the asserted patents do not comply with the ornamentality requirement of 35 U.S.C. § 171 has no basis in the law," J.A. 256, and that "there is no legal basis for respondents' assertion of [unenforceability based on] either the patent exhaustion or permissible repair doctrines," J.A. 242.

         Undeterred, ABPA sued Ford in district court, seeking a declaratory judgment of invalidity or unenforceability of the D'299 and D'685 patents. ABPA eventually moved for summary judgment. The district court considered ABPA's arguments and denied the motion, noting that ABPA "effectively ask[ed] this Court to eliminate design patents on auto-body parts." Auto. Body Parts Ass'n v. Ford Glob. Techs., LLC, 293 F.Supp.3d 690, 694 (E.D. Mich. 2018). Though Ford had not moved for summary judgment, the district court announced its intention to enter judgment in favor of Ford sua sponte pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(f)(1). Id. at 707. ABPA responded, agreeing that it had not "include[d] any additional argument, authorities, or evidence beyond that which has already been considered by this Court," and ...

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