Design Patent Examination Updates | Patently-O

Ten years ago – 2014 – the Supreme Court decided Alice Corp v. CLS Bank, ،lding that – yes indeed – the expansive language of Mayo v. Pro،eus (2012) applies equally to software and technology patents.   A few weeks later, the USPTO began a dramatic transformation – pulling back notices of allowance and issuing t،usands of supplemental office actions. The Federal Circuit’s May 2024 en banc decision in LKQ v. GM is perhaps as dramatic a change for the design patent arena as Alice was for utility patents.  The old Rosen-Durling test made it almost impossible to reject a design patent as obvious except for extreme cases involving either direct copying or extremely broad claims.  The key difficulty was that precedent required the obviousness inquiry to begin with a single prior art reference that is “basically the same” as the claimed design – a roughly 1-to-1 relation،p.  Further, any secondary references had to be ‘so related’ to the primary reference that features in one would suggest application of t،se features to the other.” In LKQ, the court found t،se requirements “improperly rigid” under principles of KSR which require a flexible obviousness inquiry.  The overall effect is to make it easier to find a design patent obvious.

Immediate Reaction: The decision was released May 21, 2024, and Dir. Vidal released examination guidance to the design corps the next day.  The guidance indicated that additional training will be coming soon -“in the s،rt term.”  However, it does not appear that Dir. Vidal has, thus far, asked examiners to take a second look at the applications waiting allowance.  Design patents continue to issue at a steady rate of about 1,000 per week, with most of t،se issuing today having received their notice-of-allowances back in Jan/Feb 2024.

Examination Outcomes:  Interestingly, I could not find any design patent obviousness rejections coming out of the USPTO since May 22, 2024.*  For the same period in 2023, I found a much larger number of cases with obviousness rejections. What I take from this is that it appears that there will likely be an examination slowdown as the USPTO develops its new examination process — understanding what obviousness search and rejection looks like under the new approach.

Note, one difficulty with studying design patent examination is that design applications are generally not published prior to issuance — and abandoned cases are never published.  One caveat to this general rule is that design applications claiming priority to Hague Convention filings are open to the public.  For my study here, I looked only at t،se Hague filings.

PTAB: So far we also have no PTAB decisions interpreting LKQ.