Understanding Design Patents: A Primer

While design patents are not as popular as their utility patent peers, they still offer a number of benefits for inventors, particularly when seeking to protect the unique appearance of an item.

In simple terms, a “design patent” protects the way an article looks, as opposed to how it is used or how it works. The specific subject matter of a design patent application may relate to the configuration or shape of an article, to the surface ornamentation applied to an article, or to the combination of configuration and surface ornamentation.

Unlike a utility patent, a design patent only has one claim. It relies largely upon the drawings to designate what the patent protects. As explained by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), “As the drawing or photograph constitutes the entire visual disclosure of the claim, it is of utmost importance that the drawing or photograph be clear and complete, that nothing regarding the design sought to be patented is left to conjecture.”

A design patent application must be examined the USPTO and subjected to a prior-art search. Under U.S. patent law, a design patent will be granted to any person who has invented any new, non-obvious, original and ornamental design for an article of manufacture. However, it is important to note that the design patent protects only the appearance of the article and not structural or utilitarian features. Once granted, design patents have a term of 14 years.

Proving infringement of a design patent also differs. The “ordinary observer” test is used to determine whether a design patent has been infringed. As first explained by the Supreme Court in 1871, the primary question is “if, in the eye of an ordinary observer, giving such attention as a purchaser usually gives, two designs are substantially the same, if the resemblance is such as to deceive such an observer, inducing him to purchase one supposing it to be the other, the first one patented is infringed by the other.” The “ordinary observer” is not an expert, but defined as “a purchaser of things of similar design” or “one interested in the subject.”


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