Is the bicycle’s design saddle visible when used or not – a key question for design protection in the EU

The Advocate General of the European Court M. SZPUNAR has issued his opinion in the case C‑472/21 Monz Handelsgesellschaft International mbH & Co. KG срещу Büchel GmbH & Co. Fahrzeugtechnik KG.

This case focuses our attention on the question of to what extent a design incorporated into a complex product should be visible in order to be suitable for industrial design protection. The case has the following background:

Monz Handelsgesellschaft International mbH & Co. KG (‘Monz’) is the holder of design No 40 2011 004 383-0001, registered at the German Patent and Trade Mark Office, DPMA since 3 November 2011 for the products ‘saddles for bicycles or motorbikes’. The design is registered with the following single representation showing the underside of a saddle:

On 27 July 2016, Büchel GmbH & Co. Fahrzeugtechnik KG (‘Büchel’) lodged an application with the DPMA for a declaration of invalidity of the contested design, claiming that it did not meet the necessary conditions for protection as to novelty and individual character. It asserted that the design was excluded from protection under Paragraph 4 of the DesignG on the ground that, as a component part of a complex product such as a ‘bicycle’ or a ‘motorcycle’, it was not visible during normal use.

By decision of 10 August 2018, the DPMA rejected the application for a declaration of invalidity, holding that there were no grounds to exclude the contested design from protection under Paragraph 4 of the DesignG. In its view, although it was true that the design applied for in relation to ‘saddles for bicycles [or] motorbikes’ was a ‘component part of a complex product’, that component nevertheless remained visible during normal use of that complex product. The DPMA considered that normal use also covered ‘the disassembly and reassembly of the saddle for purposes other than maintenance, servicing or repair work’, especially since Paragraph 1(4) of the DesignG contains ‘an exhaustive list of non-normal uses for the purposes of Paragraph 4 of the DesignG, designed as an exception and, as such, to be interpreted strictly’. The DPMA held that it followed from that provision that ‘any use by the end user which is not maintenance, servicing or repair work … therefore constitutes normal use’.

Following an objection lodged by Büchel against that decision, the Federal Patent Court, Germany declared the contested design invalid, by decision of 27 February 2020, on the ground that it did not satisfy the requirements of novelty and individual character. According to the Bundespatentgericht, under Paragraph 4 of the DesignG, only components which remain ‘visible, as component parts of the complex product, after they have been mounted/incorporated in it’ are automatically eligible for design protection. Conversely, a perspective which arises only because or when the component part of a complex product is detached cannot establish visibility such as to preclude exclusion from protection under Paragraph 4 of the DesignG. The Bundespatentgericht considered only riding a bicycle and getting on and off a bicycle as normal use for the purposes of Paragraph 1(4) of the DesignG. In its view, during such uses, the underside of the saddle is not visible either to the end-user or to another person. Monz has brought an appeal against that decision before the referring court.

In those circumstances, the Federal Court of Justice, Germany decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following questions to the Court for a preliminary ruling:

‘1. Is a component part incorporating a design a “visible” component within the meaning of Article 3(3) of [Directive 98/71] if it is objectively possible to recognize the design when the component is mounted, or should visibility be assessed under certain conditions of use or from a certain observer perspective?

2. If the answer to Question 1 is that visibility under certain conditions of use or from a certain observer perspective is the decisive factor:

(a) When assessing the “normal use” of a complex product by the end-user within the meaning of Article 3(3) and (4) of [Directive 98/71], is it the use intended by the manufacturer of the component part or complex product that is relevant, or the customary use of the complex product by the end user?

(b) What are the criteria for assessing whether the use of a complex product by the end user constitutes a “normal use” within the meaning of Article 3(3) and (4) of [Directive 98/71]?’

The Advocate General’s opinion:

1. Article 3(3) of Directive 98/71/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 October 1998 on the legal protection of designs must be interpreted as meaning that

  • in order for a design applied to or incorporated in a product which constitutes a part of a complex product to enjoy protection under that directive, the component in question must be visible in the situation of normal use of that complex product.

2.  Article 3(4) of Directive 98/71 must be interpreted as meaning that

  • the words ‘normal use’ refer to all situations which may reasonably arise during use of a complex product by the end user.

If this is confirmed by the Court it will mean that designs incorporated into complex products will have broader scope for interpretation of what exactly is a visible use.

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