Narrow design protection for a healthtech device

A healthtech design dispute over heart rate monitoring devices shows that the scope of protection of a registered design can be very narrow. When a designer's freedom is tightly constrained by technical features of the product, broad design protection is hard to achieve.

PulseOn filed registered EU designs for the reverse of a heart rate monitoring device. Although not visible in everyday use, this aspect of the product would be apparent at the point of purchase, and when the device was put on or taken off. The design features that PulseOn sought to protect were the shape and positioning of the LED light source and photo sensor apertures. These apertures permitted light to be emitted onto the skin and detected in a way that responded to pulsating blood flow. One of the registered design images is reproduced below:

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The dotted lines are features to show positioning and are not within the scope of the protection.

PulseOn complained that Garmin had infringed its registered design rights. At trial, the judge analysed the existing design corpus and the constraints on design freedom, as compared to PulseOn's registrations. He was satisfied that the registered designs were valid, but did not accept that Garmin's smart watches infringed them. The Court of Appeal has supported this view.

Clearly, the technical functioning of the product placed constraints on how these apertures could be arranged. The designer's freedom was limited by requirements as to the number and size of the LEDs and the shape of the rear surface of the device. Although the designs did have individual character that merited protection, the scope of the protection was narrow. It was limited to the size and shape of the apertures, the positioning of the asymmetrically placed third aperture, the orientation and offset position of the line through the two LED apertures and the photo sensor aperture, and the shape and size of the raised platform. Garmin's product would produce a different overall impression on an informed user.

Users of products like healthtech devices are often interested in and attracted by their appearance. But with a highly technical product, there will be considerable restrictions on the freedom that a designer has to alter its appearance. Registered design protection does offer some protection to eye-catching features, but this case demonstrates how difficult it is to achieve a broad scope of protection where technical features constrain the designer's freedom.

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