Virgin Atlantic loses design rights and patent claims over flatbed seats

Out-Law News | 27 Jan 2009 | 11:33 am | 1 min. read

Airline Virgin Atlantic has lost its claim that a rival airline's seat infringed its intellectual property rights. Virgin Atlantic's patent design rights were not infringed by a design produced by Virgin's seat design contractor for a rival, the High Court said.

The dispute centred on the design of aeroplane seats that fold down into beds. Flatbed seats were introduced by British Airways in 1996 and other airlines rushed to create their own versions of the innovation.

The seats are seen by airlines as being very important for attracting and retaining high-paying first- and business-class passengers. The High Court heard that Virgin Atlantic's introduction of the flatbed seat resulted in a market-share increase of 12% on long-haul routes.

Virgin Atlantic asked Contour to design, engineer and manufacture the seat that it introduced in 2003. The seat won awards and was a commercial success.

Contour later supplied a seat, called the Solar Eclipse, to Air Canada, and Virgin Atlantic claimed that that seat infringed its patent in its seat design and some of its design rights.

Mr Justice Lewison rejected the claim that there was wholesale copying of Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class Suite (UCS) seat by Contour or design consultancy Design Acumen.

He said that the Virgin Atlantic design had informed parts of the design process, but that many elements of it were not used and many were changed. He rejected the allegation of wholesale copying.

Mr Justice Lewison looked at many of the elements of the new seat's design and found that they had been independently designed.

Virgin Atlantic had claimed an unregistered design right in the seat, which gives it the sole right to engage in commercial production according to that design. Mr Justice Lewison said that because the unusual parts of the seat were independently designed, the design right claim must fail.

Virgin Atlantic also claimed that the seat design infringed a patent it held, which was for 'a novel seating system for a passenger vehicle, particularly an aircraft and a seating unit for a passenger seating system'.

The High Court said that Virgin Atlantic's patent was valid, that the developments that it protected were not obvious in the light of previously designed seats.

The Court found, though, that because the Air Canada seat did not flip over to provide a flat surface for sleepers to lie on and because that was one of the three central claims of Virgin Atlantic's patent, the patent was not infringed.

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