Sir James Dyson is the very definition of a visionary innovator. He saw that the conventional wisdom just wasn’t good enough and his Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, which works on the principle of “cyclonic separation”, created a paradigm shift in vacuum technology. He has since repeated this feat in relation to fans (the “air multiplier”) and hand dryers (the “airblade”) but vacuum cleaner technology has remained the product focus of his company. His net worth in 2011 was said to be £1.45 billion, so he is certainly someone who knows how to make the most out of his intellectual creations.
Innovator and Litigation
As an innovator, Sir Dyson and the Dyson company has had to litigate to protect it’s intellectual property. Most recently, in 2010, Dyson’s dispute with Vax Limited reached the High Court (Dyson Limited v Vax Limited  EWHC 1923 (pat)). Dyson claimed that its registered design for its “DCO2 Dual Cyclone” vacuum cleaner was infringed by Vax’s “Mach Zen cleaner” and that the Mach Zen cleaner gave the same overall impression to Dyson’s DCO2 Dual Cyclone. The images below show the particular vacuums involved.
Dyson DC02 Dual Cyclone (left); Vax – Mach Zen Cleaner (right)
The Judge’s findings:
Arnold J concluded that there was no infringement in this case, despite it’s striking similarity to the average consumer. Arnold J said the “informed user” would notice a great number of differences between the two designs and although he would see a number of similarities between the two designs but would not consider this significant, i.e the transparent bin. It should be noted Arnold J’s decision was recently upheld upon appeal (please see Dyson Ltd v Vax Ltd  EWCA Civ 1206).
Key issues for design infringement:
1) Design freedom: registered designs protect the design choices which inform the shape and configuration of the final product. Where similarities arise as a result of the products’ function, i.e. both vacuum cleaners feature hoses and a central reservoir to hold dust, these will not be protectable. Accordingly, the greater the functional requirements or technical specification the less room the designer will have.
2) The Informed User vs the Average Consumer: infringement is assessed from the perspective of an individual with knowledge in the area of the design. In this case, this might be a buyer for a department store with responsibility for buying vacuum cleaners. This is a trained eye which to some extent is better able to discern differences in design than an average consumer.
In this case despite the Judge’s acceptance that the registered design was entitled to a broad degree of protection due to the differences between the registration and existing designs at the time, he found no infringement. Registered designs are a relatively inexpensive form of registered Intellectual Property Rights and can last up to 25 years. They can act as an effective marker and deterrent to other particularly smaller operators. Litigating them can yield unexpected results – this case highlights the difficulty in protecting product designs which are highly function led.
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