Design Patents: It's All About The Aesthetics
Sometimes you should judge a book by its cover…
We are all familiar with the saying “never judge a book by its cover”--i.e a plea to the appearance-obsessed to take a deeper look beyond aesthetics to dig for deeper meaning. However, sometimes in life, it is about the book’s cover--and sometimes in patents, too.
You’ve probably heard of some of the most famous patents. And if you’re unfamiliar, look down at the phone in your hand. If you’re holding an iPhone, you are the owner of a patented product. But, what parts of your iPhone can be patented? Intuitively, the technology is patent-worthy, so long as that technology provides a “new way of doing something” or “offers a new technical solution to a problem,” according to the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Despite popular belief, the technology of a phone (or any other invention or creation) is not the only component that can be patented. Look down at your precious iPhone again. Would you be able to tell an iPhone apart from your old flip-phone? Of course. The unique design of the iPhone paved the way for many copycats, and stands out in the minds of consumers.
How does Apple protect the sleek phone design that all of the world has come to recognize as a unique and new phone design of the future? The answer: a design patent
Beauty over Brains: When Design Patents Matter
If there’s one fact to remember about design patents, it’s that they’re all about the aesthetics. Design patents can protect the way that an object or invention appears, while utility patents are concerned with the actual way that an object or invention functions. You can apply for both when you file with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), but it’s vital to remember that they are two very different types of patents.
Some examples of design patents include:
The original iPhone
The glass, curved Coca-Cola bottle made famous in the early 20th century
The Statue of Liberty (seriously!)
The ever-elusive laugh-crying emoji
Comic Sans font (to our dismay)
Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but not in business!
Although design patents are focused on an invention’s appearance, don’t mistake the fact that a design patents can offer more than just appearances. A design patent can offer serious protection and leverage against competitors.
A great challenge for most of these startups is that the technology of cell culture was originally designed for medical applications. In medicine, there is no need to produce cells at the massive scale required to make meat nor do they need to prioritize keeping costs low in order to scale.
Apple, to date, has been awarded over $900 million in damages from Samsung, who was accused of copying the signature design features of the iPhone. A design patent protects your invention from companies both big and small that are a little too fond of your invention’s appearance.
Strike a Pose: Fashion and Design Patents
Design patents aren’t only available to technology companies. In one of the most cut-throat industries in the world, fashion, startups and big companies are becoming wise to the advantages of design patents.
In the world of high fashion, your competitive advantage is your fashion design. Take a look at the fractured fashion industry in 2019: fast fashion copycats such as Forever21 and Asos are eager to copy runway designs and tout the ideas as their own. While there are copyright laws in place, these laws actually exclude the most important elements of a fashion garment: the shape and silhouette of the item.
Therefore, a design patent offers fashion companies with a unique product the ability to protect their intellectual property. In a recent string of lawsuits, UGG’s design patents for its winter boots were upheld against copycats.
The rule applied in judging whether companies such as Walmart had infringed upon UGG’s design patents was described by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as protecting a distinctive, unique appearance--or in an easier to understand threshold, whether an average person could tell the difference between UGG’s patented product and the copycat product.
Hungry for Packaging Design Patents
Design patents are also becoming popular in the food and beverage world, where a product’s packaging can be the reason why customers purchase a product. In the world of food and beverages, it can be tricky to apply for protection for a particular recipe (unless you’re creating a new ingredient altogether). However, design patents offer consumer packaged goods companies the opportunity to protect their ideas through packaging.
Some iconic packaging that may evoke nostalgia includes the Heinz ketchup bottle--or for candy fanatics, Sugarfina’s adorable bento-style boxes for candy. All of these inventions are protected by a design patent.
We expect to see the number of packaging design patents increase in the coming years as food and beverage companies are looking to innovate in sustainability--and what better way to have an environmental impact than through packaging design?
A Quick Explainer: Design vs. Utility Patent
For those who need a TL;DR version of the differences between the two, check out the infographic below:
In summary, a design patent is very different from a utility patent in what it protects, the length of time it takes to obtain one, its zero maintenance fees, and the number of years of protection it provides.
Appearances Do Matter!
Your product or invention’s appearance is part of your competitive advantage. When you obtain a design patent to protect that appearance, you’re signaling to both your competitors and potential future investors that you’re serious about protecting your idea. A design patent offers a unique advantage to companies that may work in an area that is heavily competitive (such as fashion), an area that is tricky for utility patents (food, particularly for consumer packaged goods), or any business area that is reliant on aesthetics to drive sales.
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