The EU General Court dismissed an action to invalidate a Registered Community Design held by Nike for electronic wristbands.

In 2012, Nike registered successfully a Community Design for an electronic wristband. One year later, Mr. Murphy filed for a declaration of invalidity of Nike’s design on the basis of a prior registered design for “Flexible LCD watch bands”.

murplhy design.jpgwristband.jpg

Mr. Murphy argued that Nike design infringed Article 6(1)(b) of the Community Designs Regulation, submitting that it lacked individual character as the overall impression on the informed user did not differ from that produced by Murphy’s prior design.

Neither the Invalidity Division of the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) nor the EUIPO Board of Appeal agreed with Mr. Murphy.

The case came before the EU General Court upon Mr. Murphy’s appeal of the Board of Appeal decision.

The General Court rejected Murphy’s application for a declaration of invalidity of the Nike design on the following grounds (here).

Firstly, it considered that, in order for a wristband to be able to fulfil its function properly, its designers would be limited by several constraints, as the need to be relatively small, thin, light, ergonomic in order to fit the wrist and to contain measuring instruments. These technical constraints led to conclude that the degree of freedom of the designer was high rather than very high, as argued by Mr. Murphy.

The degree of freedom must be taken into consideration in assessing individual character pursuant to Article 6(2) of the Designs Regulation, because the more the freedom of the designer in developing a design is restricted, the more likely it is that minor differences between the designs being compared will be sufficient to produce a different overall impression on an informed user. (see judgment of 10 September 2015, Handbags, T‑525/13, EU:T:2015:617, paragraph 29 and the case-law cited).

In any case, even taking account of a high degree of freedom afforded to the designer of electronic wristbands, the Court reiterated the position from earlier case law that the overall impression produced by the Nike design on the informed user was clearly different to that produced by Murphy’s design.

Indeed there were a number of differences between the two designs, namely that (i) the Nike design was larger and thicker than Murphy’s design, (ii) Nike’s design featured a large oval button on the surface of the wristband which was not present in Murphy’s design, (iii) the internal components of the Nike design were visible, giving it a more technical aspect than Murphy’s design, which appeared as opaque and elegant, and (iv) the Nike design had less ornamentation than Murphy’s design, on which the image of a diver and a line running along the wristband were clearly visible.

On the contrary, the clasps’ similarity in both designs alone was not sufficient to make them similar as a whole. Indeed, the overall impression must be determined in light of the manner in which the product is used and when using an electronic wristband, the informed user attaches more importance to the part displaying the data than to the clasp.

The General Court disregarded Murphy’s argument, based on UK case law, that his prior design enjoyed a higher degree of protection because it was a significant advance over the prior art in existence at the time of its registration in 2005. The Court has pointed out that it was not bound to consider decisions of national courts, even where the latter are based on provisions analogous to those of that regulation (see judgment of 29 October 2015, Éditions Quo Vadis v OHIM — Gómez Hernández (‘QUO VADIS’), T‑517/13, not published, EU:T:2015:816, paragraph 46 and the case-law cited). In addition, the new and unusual character of Murphy’s design did not prevent the informed user from perceiving the differences in subsequent designs (see, to that effect, judgment of 21 May 2015, Senz Technologies v OHIM — Impliva (Umbrellas), T‑22/13 and T‑23/13, EU:T:2015:310, paragraph 95).

Appeal has already been brought before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) (C-538/17 P). It does not seem unreasonable to predict the confirmation of the here mentioned decision. Indeed, the General Court seems to have applied the long standing principles formulated by the ECJ in relation to the assessment of the individual character and its judgment appears to be a matter of fact, that hardly may be challenged by the higher court.

Jacopo Ciani

General Court (Fifth Chamber), 4 July 2017, Thomas Murphy v European Union Intellectual Property Office, Case T-90/16

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