Saturday, 29 October 2011

A particularly obscure branch of metaphyiscs

Not my phrase: that's what Jacob LJ called design law, in Dyson v Qualtex five years ago. Earlier this week, I spent a day presenting a course on IP infringements and enforcement - someone else's course, so I was using materials I hadn't prepared, though I don't think I'd have covered the subject any differently. I found myself having to explain to the audience that designs featured less in real, practising, life than any other area of intellectual property law, but that the law was so complicated - such a mess - that it demanded a large chunk of such a course.

I've been explaining the same thing to my Russian students, and my American student, all studying for external London University LLB degrees, the American one having done her resit yesterday. The examiner demonstrates what might be thought to be an unhealthy interest in designs - worse than that, in fact, because the Community system isn't part of the syllabus and copyright seems to loom large, which makes it all seem highly artificial. But it's certainly an area of law in which, right now, there's quite a lot going on, with the Court of Justice handing down its judgment in the Pogs case last week and now the Court of Appeal deciding Dyson Ltd v Vax Ltd [2011] EWCA Civ 1206 (27 October 2011).

The story so far is that last year Mr Justice Arnold held that Vax's Mach Zen vacuum cleaner did not infringe Dyson's UK registered design, much to some people's surprise and Sir James Dyson's dismay. Dyson appealed.

To succeed in such an appeal, the appellant would have to show that the judge had gone wrong in principle. That's a big ask, and I don't think Mr Justice Arnold is the sort of chap to do that very often. The case was based on Article 9(2) of the Community design directive, which refers to the degree of freedom of the designer in developing his design, and that (as Jacob LJ observed) plainly refers to the registered design, not the accused object. Dyson complained that the judge had referred several times to the freedom of Vax's designer. Jacob LJ thought that it mattered not, there being no change in the degrees of design freedom between the date of the design and that of the design of the Vax machine.

Dyson's counsel (Henry Carr QC) also stated his case as being that the judge had effectively decided (as paraphrased in the Court of Appeal by Lady Justice Black) that the better the design the more people would say that it is only going to be worse if I do it a different way, so the less the design freedom, and ingenious and innovative designs would be penalised. Jacob LJ did not read the judgment this way. Indeed, the judge specifically held that the registered design was "strikingly different" from the existing "design corpus": Dyson argued that he had however failed to apply the principle that where this is the case the new designi s likely to have a greater overall visual impact than if it is "surrounded by kindred prior art", as HHJ Fysh pithily put it in Woodhouse. The Court of Appeal rejected this approach, holding that the judge was still entitled to find that the Vax machine did produce on the informed user a different overall impression from that produced by the Dyson design.

Sir James Dyson is clearly unhappy, according to this report, though I don't think he has taken full account of the rile of the Court of Appeal. I am disappointed that he should have launched such a diatribe, although I can understand that he feels miffed. He ought however to be directing his ire against a design law which seems more hopeless the  more I think about it.

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