Nicholas J has ruled that by selling its Razor fan Martec has infringed Hunter Pacific’s registered design for a ceiling fan hub, ADR No. 340171.
On the right below are two of the representations in the design:
and on the left above are corresponding views of Martec’s infringement.
On the s 19 analysis mandated by s 71, Nicholas J recognised a number of obvious differences between the registered design and the Razor. However, the overall impression conveyed was one of similarity. In particular, the lower “hubs” were similarly proportioned and conveyed a generally sleek and flat appearance. This was particularly important as this was the feature which contributed most to the informed user’s assessment of the design. As Hunter Pacific’s expert pointed out, that was significant as a ceiling fan hub would be viewed from underneath, looking up. Thus, his Honour concluded:
Although they exhibit a number of obvious differences in shape and configuration, these differences are in my view insufficient to displace what I consider to be significant and eye-catching similarities that create an overall impression of substantial similarity.
It is a bit difficult to tell as images of the prior art are not included. That said, the verbal descriptions suggest that the Razor was much closer to the registered design than any of the prior art. The number of prior art advanced by Martec served to emphasise that there were many different ways to achieve the same functional outcome. Accordingly, while the designs were to some extent dictated by function, there was no significant restriction on the designer’s freedom to innovate.
Nicholas J did not explicitly take sides on the debate about who was the informed user, simply restating the statutory test. His Honour did follow Yates’ J lead, however, in emphasising that the impression that the informed user would form was not based on a fleeting or casual inspection. Rather, it required a careful and deliberate visual inspection.
The fifth decision under the “new” Designs Act 2004 illustrates the operation of that old principle: in a crowded field, small differences may be enough to confer validity, but equally small differences in the accused products will be sufficient to avoid liability.
You will recall that LED Technologies successfully sued Elecspess (and others) for infringing LED’s registered designs for a dual lens lamp, ARD 302359, and a triple lens lamp, 302360 (links to those decisions via here). Well, LED fell out with its Chinese manufacturer, Valens, and found itself a new supplier. Valens, however, didn’t take things lying down and started supplying another of LED’s competitors, Baxter.
As in the earlier case, Baxter challenged the validity of the earlier design; this time arguing that the Statement of Newness and Distinctiveness was unclear and also relying on some different prior art.
The first objection failed. The perspective view for the two-lens design looks like this:
The Statement of Newness etc. etc. read:
Separate clip in lenses. Base to take a variety of 2, 3 or 4 combination of lenses for stop, tail, indicator, reverse LED lenses, no visible screws.
At , Finkelstein J accepted that the Statement of Newness etc. etc. could have been “better expressed”, but it sufficiently clear and succinct:
…. In my view the statement indicates clearly to the relevantly informed addressee (and probably to anyone familiar with the English language) that the base could be manufactured to take a number of lenses. Reference to “separate clip in lenses”, when read with the phrase “no visible screws”, indicates that the lenses clips in and are not held in place by screws. There is nothing relevantly uncertain contained in the statement.
There were important visual differences between LED’s designs and the closest prior art. For example, at :
the base of the Rubbolite lamps appeared to provide individual frames for each lens, which is not a feature of the registered designs. … the corners of the Rubbolite lens appeared sharper or squarer than the registered designs but said the difference was minor. … there was a noticeable ledge or lip around the lens (which he referred to as the “lens housing”) which was not shown on the registered designs. The ledge or lip around the lens on the Rubbolite lamps tapered inwards which made it substantially different in appearance when looked at from the side.
Hence, the registered designs were valid.
Unfortunately (for LED), before Valens started supplying Baxter, it had made some changes to the product. As a result, the products supplied to Baxter were not substantially similar in overall impression to the registered designs. Finkelstein J accepted  that there were similarities between the products imported by Baxter and the registered design. Many of them, however, “were common in the prior art”. Moreover:
 There are, to my mind, several important features that lead me to the conclusion that the Baxters lamps are not substantially similar in overall impression to the registered designs. The key features are the prominent cut out pattern on the underside of the designs, which is to be contrasted with the flat closed backs of the Baxters lamps, and the square lenses of the designs having a wide landing between them while the Baxters lights have no landing. Of less significance are the long sides of the frames of the registered designs which have raised edges resulting in a counter-sunk appearance, which is not present on the Baxters lamps. As well, the short sides of the frames of the registered designs are raised at their outer portions and dip down in the central portion, which is not a feature of Baxters’ design.
 Moreover, in my view, it is these features that distinguish the registered designs from the prior art such as to admit of the conclusion that the registered designs are new and distinctive.
Inducing breach of contract
An interesting twist to this case, was that LED also tried to “get” Baxter for inducing the (ex-) Chinese supplier, Valens, to breach its contract with LED.
Essentially, LED argued it had agreed with Valens that Valens would not supply anyone else in Australia or New Zealand with products made using the moulds for the products supplied to LED. The evidence on this point was less than ideal, with the judge being rather critical of the witnesses. There was also a dispute between LED and Valens over who owned what. Ultimately, his Honour accepted that there was a deal that LED would be supplied exclusively for Australia and New Zealand so the supply of products to Baxter was in breach of the agreement. However, Baxter itself did not procure the breach: Baxter did not know Valens was re-using the moulds: to the contrary, it was paying Valens for new moulds.
It is rather hard to reconcile the story in Elecspess on how the designs came into existence and came to be manufactured with the evidence in this case. Of course, as the parties in the two cases are different, each must be decided on its own evidence. I guess, in terms of ownership of the registered designs, there is commonality in that LED’s principal, Mr Ottobre, was the author of the original conception. Matters get rather murky after that. At , LED apparently started selling the lamps made by Valens in “early 2004”, but the priority date of the designs is 22 June 2004.