By Russ and Tiña De Maris
A ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has shed some interesting light on the future of towable trailers, at least in the mind of Thor Industries. The court ruling tosses a decision to reject a patent filed by Heartland RV (a Thor subsidiary) back at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board for reconsideration. Some background will help.
Back in 2012, Heartland applied for a patent protecting “a moveable-wall-structure for a travel trailer.” Moveable wall structure? Apparently Heartland’s idea was particularly aimed at “toy haulers.” Imagine parking your toy hauler at your site, and unloading your ATVs or whatever, then at the push of a button, moving the wall separating the “garage” compartment back, effectively enlarging the living area space of your rig. That’s the idea that Heartland/Thor wanted to secure for itself. Here’s a drawing that was provided in the original patent application.
Two years after the RV maker put in for the patent, a Patent Office examiner rejected the filing. In the examiner’s opinion, another outfit had already secured a patent claim for a similar device in a trailer. In this case, the moveable-wall-in-a-trailer idea was designed for semi-trailers. Here’s what it looks like.
Thor appealed the patent examiner’s rejection, taking the matter to the Patent Trial and Appeal Board. The Board is charged with hearing such matters, and its opinion was that the patent examiner made the right call, disallowing Thor’s claim for a patent. Thor took the matter to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit which, in so many words, said the matter boiled down to wording. In previously granted patents for moveable walls in trailers the specific phrase “travel trailer,” which Thor used in its patent claim, was not used. The Federal court said that the terminology might have a bearing, and sent the case back to the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.
What happens now? The Board basically has two choices. One, it could rule that it is obvious enough that the earlier patent granted – without the phrase “travel trailer” – is so clearly applicable to any type of trailer, travel or otherwise, that Thor’s claim is no good. The other option the Board has is to simply send it back to the Patent Examiner, and let them rethink the matter.
Regardless of the outcome, it is an interesting glimpse into the mind of RV designers. Evidently Heartland/Thor feels there’s money to be made by having moveable walls in some units – enough to try and shut off competition before they even send a signal to potential buyers.