Are Designs Worth Your Dimes?
Design patents are that strange, rarely thought of kind of patent. Are they "real" patents? Yes, design patents are real patents. What is a design patent? It is a patent on the ornamental characteristics of an article of manufacture. These characteristics include the configuration of an article, the shape of an article, ornamentation applied to an article, and a combination thereof.
Yeah, I know, nice legalese. So, what does that really mean? It means that a fabric pattern on a chair or couch can be protected by a design patent (but not the chair or couch itself). Interestingly, it also means that an automobile manufacturer can protect certain parts if they are ornamental. This summer Ford won two design patent cases where the Federal Circuit upheld Ford's design patents to the hood and headlamp of an F150 truck. Your initial reaction might be that the F150 hood and headlamps are functional. You would be correct. However, all articles of manufacture have some function. The distinction one looks for is whether or not the ornamentation is required by the function or whether or not the design primarily functional. The District Court and Federal Circuit sided with Ford and held that the hood and headlamp design patents covered non-functional ornamentation and were valid.
Benefits of design patents include their simplicity (one claim defined by the drawings), lower costs (design patents are easier to draft and the filing fees are about half that of utility patents), shorter pendency (design patents issue in about 20 months versus 24 months for utility patents) and the valuable ability to keep others from using substantially the same design (ornamentation) as yours.
How does this apply to you? Have you invented a new shoe or a medical device that contains non-functional ornamentation (e.g., stripes, curves, patterns, etc.)? What about a new electronic gadget that is housed in a gorgeous, carefully thought out case (think the exterior design of a phone or a tablet)? A wide variety of mechanical and electronic inventions could be partly protected by a design patent. Competition is fierce in today's markets and differentiation matters. If you've worked hard to invent an article of manufacture that has ornamental characteristics that people will attribute to you, why not protect those ornamental characteristics? A design patent (or patents) might be just what you need to enhance the value of your company. Curious? VanceIP is here to answer your questions.