Design Patent Infringement- No Experts Please

There is some concern about a recent decision from the Southern District of Ohio in which the court, with little evidentiary analysis, relied on an expert opinion to bolster its own analysis that summary judgment should not be granted for the defendant because a jury could find infringement. Fortunately, a better view, that expert opinion should not be permitted on the issue of infringement, has been expressed in two other recent cases.

The test for determining infringement in design patent cases is the “ordinary observer” test, from the decision of the Supreme Court in Gorham Co. v. White 81 U.S. 511 (1871), more recently vindicated by the Federal Circuit in Egyptian Goddess v. Swisa, 543 F.3d 665 (Fed. Cir. 2008). The test as written by the Supreme Court is “if in the eye of an ordinary observer, giving such attention as a purchaser usually gives, two designs are substantial the same, if the resemblance is such as to deceive such an observer, inducing him to purchase one supposing it to be the other, the first one patented is infringed by the other.”

The Ohio court accepted the expert’s opinion that the ordinary observer would be deceived. That raises the obvious question “how could the expert know what an ordinary observer would think? He couldn't. That’s why the courts in HR U.S. LLC v. Mizco Int’l and Chef’n Corp. v. Trudeua Corp. excluded such testimony.

Excluding testimony concerning the ordinary observer test is consistent with the way similar issues are treated in copyright and trademark law. In copyright cases, expert testimony is not permitted on the issue of whether an ordinary observer would find the works in question “substantially similar.” Nor do we permit expert opinions concerning the “likelihood of confusion” of the typical consumer in trademark cases; we permit only surveys of actual consumers.