Legal Updates - Copying of Ideas not Infringement

Intellectual Property Law – Design Rights Dispute – Infringement of Registered and Unregistered Design Rights in Law Mower – Copying of Ideas not Infringement

The case of Rolawn Ltd and Another v Turfmech Machinery Ltd [2008] concerned a dispute over design rights. The first and second claimants in this case (“the Claimant”) were related companies. The first company was the successor to the second company's business and design rights.

The Claimant grew turf which it then sold to third parties. Prior to 2002, the Claimant used a number of different machines to cut large areas of grass. However, the Claimant became dissatisfied with the problems arising form the use of those machines. Subsequently, it instructed its design team to design and produce a new lawn mower.

The design team developed a wide area mower which, amongst its other features, included 21 cutting heads. The machine was built for the Claimant's own use and was not for sale to any third party. As it turned out, the machine was an immediate success. This led to several more being built, all of which were used on the Claimant's own land.

The Claimant did not advertise the machines. However, some publicity photographs were available from about 2003 and on the 26th of February of that year, an application for a registered design was made.

The defendant company in this case was a supplier of agricultural machinery. It also supplied grass-cutting machinery. During 2004, the defendant became interested in developing a wide area mower to cater for the following two markets:

  • Companies engaged in growing turf; and
  • Local authorities.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate a licence to produce the Claimant's mower, the defendant produced its own wide area mower with 13 cylinder cutting heads in March 2006. Then, in September 2006, the defendant produced a 17 cylinder cutting head mower.

Subsequently, the Claimant alleged that the defendant had copied aspects of its machines in developing those two products, thereby infringing its unregistered design rights. Furthermore, the Claimant alleged that that the defendant's designs infringed its registered design rights.

As a result of these claims, the defendant sought a declaration that the claimant's registered design rights were invalid by way of a counterclaim. A number of issues had to be determined by the court:

  • Whether (and to what extent) there were unregistered design rights in the claimant's machine;
  • Whether the defendant had copied the Claimant’s machine;
  • If so, whether that copying had infringed the unregistered design rights;
  • Whether the Claimant's registered design rights were valid; and
  • If so, whether the defendant's mowers infringed that registered design.

The court dismissed the claim and the counterclaim with regards to unregistered design rights.

It held that while there were unregistered design rights in the physical aspects of the Claimant's machine, which were shown and described in the Claimant’s particulars of claim, there were no design rights in anything of any greater degree of generality.

Furthermore, the court was of the opinion that there were no design rights in the general way in which the machine was constructed. The court therefore held that on the evidence presented before it, no material parts of the Claimant's machine had been copied by the defendant.

The most that had been copied were some general ideas of how to put the machine together. This meant that the result of the copying had not been so extreme so as to have produced a machine exactly or substantially similar to the Claimant's design.

With regards to the registered design, the Claimant's right was deemed valid. However, the court held that there was no infringement due to the fact that the defendant's machine created a different overall impression in the eyes of the informed user.

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© RT COOPERS, 2008. This Briefing Note does not provide a comprehensive or complete statement of the law relating to the issues discussed nor does it constitute legal advice. It is intended only to highlight general issues. Specialist legal advice should always be sought in relation to particular circumstances.

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