BLOGS: Furniture Law Blog

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014, 9:22 AM

Plugged-In Furniture - What's Past Is Prologue

As furniture becomes more and more tech-driven (e.g., USB ports, chargers, coolers, etc.) we can sometimes forget that claims to advancements in the basic sofa have been around for some time. Today's Westlaw's "Headnote of the Day" e-mail contained the case headnote "Sitting on a couch is not exercise." This got my attention and warranted a deeper look.

The headnote comes from Stauffer Laboratories, Inc. v. F.T.C., 343 F.2d 75 (9th Cir. 1965). In Stauffer, the Ninth Circuit was asked to review a preliminary injunction directing Stauffer Labs and its principal officer from making claims that use of the "Magic Couch" or "Posture-Rest" sofa results in weight loss. The sofa consisted of a central oscillating section measuring 10 by 15 inches and two larger sections that are attached to opposite sides of the central section. The couch user lies upon it with his head on one attached portion and his legs on another while the central portion of his body is given what was called "effortless exercise" through oscillation of the central portion. The user was also to follow a low-calorie diet! The Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding that ads touting the sofa's ability to reduce "inches and pounds" were deceptive.

Have things changed that much today? Do you know of any "technologically advanced" pieces of furniture that make exceptional claims?

The full text of the "Magic Couch" ads:

insist on STAUFFER the only home plan backed by 20 years of reducing success The Stauffer principle has helped more than 5 million women remake their figures.
It's a complete figure-beautifying plan of effortless exercise and calorie reduction.
Stauffer's ‘Magic Couch’— The Posture-Rest unit— provides controlled rhythmic motion.
Helps take off excess weight, remove unwanted inches.
No starvation diets. No strenuous exercise.'
‘Exercise comes first with Stauffer. But it's effortless exercise—without work or strain— on Stauffer's Magic Couch. This exercise does away with inches * * * tones and firms hard-to-reach problem areas * * * improves posture * * * even reproportions. When you want to lose both inches and pounds, exercise on the Magic Couch is combined with sensible calorie reduction. This brings about results you just can't get from diet alone. And every woman who reduces with Stauffer does it with the help and encouragement of another woman * * * a trained Stauffer counselor.’
‘Greet Summer
With a lovelier figure
How you'll look in a swimsuit depends on how you REDUCE. No longer need heavy hips, thighs, legs and waistline ‘rolls' embarrass you. Beautify your posture, reproportion your figure into more youthful looking, lovelier lines by trimming away unwanted inches with the famous STAUFFER HOME REDUCING PLAN of effortless exercise and calorie reduction. * * *’
‘* * * The Magic Couch (Posture Rest) is the heart of the Stauffer Home Reducing Plan of effortless exercise and calorie reduction. * * *’
‘You lose unwanted pounds.
You lose inches where you need to— from hips, tummy, thighs.
You achieve a graceful, lifted posture.
Your skin fits smoothly— sagging tissue is firmed and toned. * * *‘
‘There is more to the Stauffer Home Plan than just reducing. Rather, it is a complete program of scientific figure control. It not only takes off excess weight, but also removes hard-to-lose inches from ankles, thighs, hips and tummy.
‘For a woman, it tones and firms sagging muscles, beautifies posture for a lovelier carriage, and gives her a more youthful-looking figure.’

Monday, July 7, 2014, 5:19 PM

Amini Sues Yuan Tai Enterprises - Again

Amini Innovation Corporation ("AICO") filed suit on June 30, 2014 in the United States District Court for the Central District of California (AICO's home court) again Yuan Tai Enterprises, Inc., a Texas corporation. The lawsuit involves two of several tools available to furniture manufacturers to defend its designs: namely patents and copyright. AICO is suing Yuan Tai again after Yuan Tai allegedly violated a 2007 agreement that settled earlier litigation. AICO is suing on 21 copyright registrations and 14 design patents. This approach highlights the one-two punch that copyright registrations and design patents provide. While the scope of protection under the copyright registrations may overlap with the design patent protection, there is a different standard for infringement (substantially similar (copyright) versus whether a consumer would confuse one with the other (design patent)). Armed with both copyright registrations and  design patents, a furniture manufacturer has potentially strong tools at its disposal to enforce its rights. The case is:  Amini Innovation Corporation v. Yuan Tai Furniture, Inc. a/k/a Yuan Tai Enterprises, Inc., Case No. 2:14-cv-05071. An image of one of the protected AICO pieces is shown below:

Sunday, April 27, 2014, 6:13 AM

NC Begins Work On Patent Troll Bill

Guest Authored by David Boaz

Recently, a joint legislative committee sent a report to the North Carolina General Assembly that recommended passing an anti-troll bill during the legislature’s 2014 Short Session.  A copy of the bill may be found here. The proposed bill, titled “Patent Abuse Bill,” would create a civil and criminal cause of action aimed at preventing bad faith assertions of patent infringement. The bill also make it extortion to obtain or attempt to obtain property through a bad faith assertion of patent infringement. Extortion is a Class F felony under North Carolina law.

On the civil side, the bill would make it an unfair or deceptive trade practice to assert patent infringement in bad faith. Persons entitled to bring a claim are either the N.C. Attorney General or a person called a “Target,” i.e., a person who receives a demand letter that alleges infringement, is threatened with litigation or sued for infringement, or has customers who have received a demand letter asserting that the person’s product or service has infringed a patent.

The bill provides a number of factors to aid in determining whether a patentee has asserted a claim in bad faith, including whether the patentee compared the claims in the patent to the accused product, whether the patentee made an unreasonable licensing demand, whether the patentee knew or should have known its claims would be barred by prosecution history estoppel, and whether the patentee knew or should have known that its claims were meritless. Enumerated factors indicating good faith include whether the patentee responds to an accused infringer’s requests for information regarding the patent within a reasonable time, whether the patentee substantially invests in the active practice of the patent, and whether the patentee has demonstrated good faith business practices or has been successful in previous efforts to enforce the same/similar patent.

If a court finds a reasonable likelihood of a bad faith assertion, the court must require the claimant to post a bond estimated to equal the costs and fees to litigate the claim, unless the claimant has assets equal to the amount of the proposed bond. The bill also provides for equitable remedies, costs, attorneys’ fees, and treble damages. If the claimant has no substantial interest in the patent other than the assertion of infringement, a court is permitted to join “Interested Parties,” whom the court can hold jointly and severally liable if the claimant is unable to pay. An “Interested Party” is defined as a person other than the claimant who is an assignee of the asserted patent, has a right to enforce or sublicense the patent, or has a direct financial interest in the patent.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014, 4:27 PM

Michael Sullivan to Speak on Regulatory & Compliance Issues for Furniture Industry

HIGH POINT, N.C.—Womble Carlyle Mass Torts attorney Michael Sullivan will discuss “Compliance to the Letter of the Law” at the Furniture Today 2014 Regulatory & Compliance Summit. The event takes place April 23rd on the campus of High Point University.
In his presentation, Sullivan will share steps that home furnishings companies should take now to demonstrate their commitment to safe products and a safe workplace. He also will discuss regulations, industry standards and warnings, with an emphasis on identifying what is truly important.
Clients turn to Michael Sullivan for senior-level strategic guidance in mass tort product liability litigation and other large-scale commercial litigation. Sullivan brings nearly three decades of experience in “bet-the-company” cases. He serves in the role of “outside General Counsel” or Coordinating Counsel, providing big-picture advice to craft successful litigation strategies, increase efficiencies and contain costs. Sullivan collaborates with clients on a wide range of high-end business problems, including mass tort litigation.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013, 1:35 PM

Federal Circuit Clarifies Test for Obviousness of Design Patents

Who gets to decide when a design patent is obvious? There was some confusion on that topic until the Federal Circuit handed down its opinion in High Point Designs LLV v. Buyers Direct, Inc., No. 2012-1455 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 11, 2013) (a copy of the opinion can be found here).

In the opinion, the panel of Judges O'Malley, Schall, and Wallach confirmed that the obviousness of a design patent is to be determined through the eyes of an "ordinary designer," not an "ordinary observer." What's the difference? A big one actually. The ordinary design test requires the court to engage in a more sophisticated analysis that can rely on expert testimony (but does not have to). Typically when the obviousness analysis is elevated to a more sophisticated level, the "gap" between the prior art and the claimed design is easier to overcome because of the skill set and knowledge attributed to the hypothetical designer. This could make it easier to invalidate design patents on obviousness grounds. However, it most likely means courts will be less likely to rule design patents invalid on summary judgment as competing facts (and perhaps competing experts) will create fact issues for a jury to determine. In any event, this decision expressly cleans up the confusion created by International Seaway Trading Corp. v. Walgreens Corp., 589 F.3d 1233, 1240 (Fed. Cir. 1990) that stated the obviousness determination was to be made by the "ordinary observer."

As for the facts in the High Point case, the Federal Circuit reversed summary judgment of obviousness of the slipper design below, Fig. 1 from the design patent in suit:

in view of the prior art Woolrich product:

The case was sent back to the district court for reconsideration in view of the clarified standard.

A final note: the court chided the district court for failing to translate the design of the patent into a verbal description. This runs counter to Federal Circuit precedent indicating that claim construction is not necessary with design patents. It will be interesting to see how this language is interpreted by the district courts. This panel clearly wanted more analysis from this district court judge. Some district courts may, however, take this recommendation too far and engage in unnecessary claim construction of a design patent.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013, 10:38 PM

Copyright + Trade Dress = Solid Combination For Furniture Manufacturers

Furniture manufacturers have a varied arsenal when it comes to protecting their intellectual property. A single item of furniture can be protected by a utility patent (assuming there is functionality), design patent, copyright, and trade dress. If the item or its collection has a name, trademark rights may be available too. Even though there are many tools, the copyright and trade dress combination is a dependable pairing that provides a formidable offense.

Amini Innovation Corporation ("AICO") recently deployed this one-two punch against McFerran Home Furnishings. See Civil Action No. 2:13-cv-6496 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 5, 2013). In its complaint, AICO alleges copyright and trade dress infringement for two items of furniture, including the heavily advertised Villa Valencia Bed (AICO's shown above McFerran's allegedly infringing bed):

The copyright-plus-trade dress strategy allows a furniture manufacturer to assert a statutory claim (copyright) and essentially a common law claim (trade dress). Manufacturers can apply for and obtain a copyright certificate at any time, unlike with patents, which can time-barred by public disclosures and sales. One can sell a product for a while and then get a copyright registration, including after the discovery of an infringer. Be careful, however, because statutory damages are only available to those that obtain a registration before the infringement starts. The trade dress claim allows the manufacturer put on evidence of its wide-spread advertising and marketing, all of which can greatly influence a judge or jury.

Used together, the copyright-plus-trade dress combination is an effective set of litigation tools for the furniture manufacturer with innovative designs.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013, 9:31 AM

Stop Infringement At The Border

In today's home furnishings marketplace, the importation of goods is a reality that every manufacturer deals with whether they import or not. The importers are often blamed for bringing infringing goods into this country (a reputation that is not altogether undeserved). For manufacturers or importers, it is important to remember that proceedings before the International Trade Commission ("ITC") are an important tool to stopping infringing items from ever entering this country.

ITC proceedings are instigated in Washington, D.C. by the holder of intellectual property rights. The ITC has jurisdiction under Section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930 to investigate claims that imported goods are infringing U.S. patents, trademarks, or copyrights or otherwise constitutes unfair competition. ITC proceedings can result in an exclusion order that prevents infringing goods from entering the country. ITC proceedings are often faster than traditional litigation in the federal district courts and require some additional work up front to ensure the petitioner's case moves smoothly.

Home furnishings lend themselves to protection under several different forms of intellectual property, including design patents, trade dress, and copyright. Recently, Twin Star International, Inc. received a limited exclusion order banning the importation of certain electric fireplaces that violate Twin Star's copyright and trade secrets. The infringing products violated the copyright on an electric fireplace insert and the contents of their manuals. The action successfully stopped two Chinese manufacturers from importing infringing goods into the U.S.

There are many considerations that go into whether to institute an ITC proceeding or traditional district court action. The plaintiff needs to consider the source of the infringing product, its distribution within the U.S., the urgency of obtaining injunctive relief, whether U.S. district courts would have jurisdiction over foreign entities, and costs. However, it's a powerful tool that right holders should consider when faced with the importation of infringing goods.
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