by Dennis Crouch
We all love flowers, but what is their real purpose, their “use.” That was a key question the court faced when deciding In re WinGen LLC (Fed. Cir. 2023).
The utility patent at issue covers a petunia plant. Here, the Federal Circuit has affirmed that the claims are invalid based upon a pre-filing trade-show display of the ornamental plant — holding that the display counted as a “public use.” “The displaying of ‘Cherry Star’ … was … undoubtedly a use for its intended purpose: ornament.”
The inventors here used conventional plant breeding to create a new form of petunia (Calibrachoa). WinGen first obtained a plant patent (PP23,232); followed by a utility patent that was filed as a continuation-in-part (US9313959). The claims require two components (1) a particular petal phenotype and (2) a particular genotype:
Petal Phenotype: at least one inflorescence with a radially symmetric pattern along the center of the fused petal margins, wherein said pattern extends from the center of the inflorescence and does not fade during the life of the inflorescence, and
Genetic Feature: a single half-dominant gene, as found in Calibrachoa variety ‘Cherry Star,’ representative seed having been deposited under ATCC Accession No. PTA-13363.
During the reissue, the patentee disclosed the potential invalidating prior use; admitting that the claimed variety was displayed at a private Home Depot event where wholesale growers displayed their wares. Nothing was for sale at the event, no orders were placed, and attendees were not permitted to take samples or cuttings. However, there was also no express or implied obligation of confidentiality binding individuals who attended.
The patentee argued that the display should not be considered a public use — it was only displayed — and not used. One case on point is Motionless Keyboard Co. v. Microsoft Corp., 486 F.3d 1376 (Fed. Cir. 2007). In that Motionless Keyboard, the alleged prior use involved displaying the invention (a keyboard). But there, the court found no public use because the keyboard was not hooked-up to a computer. Id. The patentee also distinguished the old canard of Egbert v. Lippmann, 104 U.S. 333 (1881). In Egbert, the Supreme Court premised its public use finding on the notion the inventor failed to maintain control over his invention — allowing someone to wear the corset around in public repeatedly over an extended time without any restrictions. See, Dey, L.P. v. Sunovion Pharms., Inc., 715 F.3d 1351 (Fed. Cir. 2013). Here, however, the flower was kept in the control of the patentee despite being displayed.
In distinguishing these cases, the Federal Circuit looked to the purpose of the invention. The oddity of this utility patent is that it claims an ornamental plant. Although the claims were not challenged on Section 101 utility grounds, the Federal Circuit still considered the plant’s utility as it fed into the “public use” bar of Section 102. And without fanfare, the court concluded that its purpose was ornamentation; that a display of the plant counts as ornamentation; and therefore the plant was in public use.
Although the court indicates that this situation (ornamental use of a utility patent) is a unique question of first impression, the court inexplicitly issued its decision as non-precedential. Perhaps the court simply did not want to make law based upon a logical paradox. Further, the Federal Circuit’s justification was not found in the USPTO brief in the case. Rather, the USPTO asked for a simple rule that a public use follows from display of the complete invention in a commercial setting and without any secrecy limitations. But public display is not enough for a finding of traditional public use.
The patentee had also argued that its continued control over the plant meant that nobody at the Home Depot event could have learned of the genetic feature claim limitation. On appeal, the Federal Circuit did not consider that argument – finding that the argument had been forfeited because it was not meaningfully presented to the lower tribunal.
The patentee told the court in briefing and at oral arguments that the claims cover an ornamental plant. Those admissions allowed the court to rely upon that conclusion in its decision. Here, the real utility might be found in the specification (and deposit) that provide guidance on how to grow the plant.
Note that this was a pre-AIA case. The AIA now includes an additional catch-all “otherwise available to the public” that presumably makes it easier to show that certain public showings ‘count’ as prior art.