Coleman's Armband Flotation Patent Suit Decided by Federal Circuit

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on April 27, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Federal Circuit dealt recently with one of its more nuanced patent infringement stipulations. In Sports Dimension, Inc. v. Coleman Company, Inc., the circuit court determined that the slight tapering angle and inclusion of flotation armbands were "functional" and not primarily ornamental in nature.

A declaratory judgment of non-infringement in favor of rival petitioner was vacated. It verifies something that patent lawyers already understand: nothing is entirely functional or ornamental on a finished consumer product.

Flotation Devices

Coleman owns a patent (United States Design Patent No. D623,714, or "714 patent") claiming the ornamental design of a personal flotation device. It features a strap to be worn around the midsection-thorax of a small child featuring two inflatable armbands and with two ends that taper and strap around the body.

At issue -- believe it or not -- is the exact nature of the armbands and the tapering.

The Armbands and Tapering

From the layman's point of view, the primary intent of the designer is for the armbands to be filled with air to give buoyancy to the wearer. Thus, one could reasonably say that the purpose is "functional."

What is more difficult to discern is the purpose of the tapering. This could either be functional (such as to offer better comfort to the wearer) or be a design preference.

Why It Matters

Sport Dimension, another maker of a similar flotation device was accused by Coleman of infringing on the 714 patent. Sports Dimension balked at this and filed for a declaratory judgment of non-infringement and for a declaration that the 714 patent was invalid for being primarily a functional patent.

Patents are invalid if they are purely functional in nature. But "primarily" function designs are harder to pin down. Although the district granted the declaratory judgment, Coleman petitioned for relief because it had cleverly claimed that the 714 patent was "ornamental," thus lending credence to its validity.

Claim Construction

At the district level, Sport had successfully moved the court for declaratory judgment of non-infringement and patent 714 invalidity because it had pushed a claim construction theory to excluded the Coleman armbands and the tapering -- ruling them functional and not ornamental.

Upon review, the Federal Circuit found that the lower district court was correct in finding that the design was functional -- particularly with the exclusion of the armbands and the tapering of the strap. The better act would have been to allow the finder of fact to consider these design elements into the original claim construction without excluding them so that the finder of fact could actually consider the entire design element instead of just individual parts.

The inclusion of all the elements caused the circuit court to lean towards the notion that the excluded elements were actually functional in nature and should have been considered so. The circuit vacated the judgment for non-infringement and sent the case back to the lower court for reconsideration.

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