Design Patents

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A design patent is available for a new, original and ornamental design for an article of manufacture. Unlike the utility patent (that can exist for 17 years) the design patent lasts for a maximum of 14 years. Generally, design patents are used to protect the aesthetic shape of functional articles (i.e., the unique shape of a wine bottle, a desk, computer case, an amusement car ride, or a shower head.)

The design patent protects only the appearance of an article and not its structure or utilitarian features. For example, an automobile company, creates a new van with a high-tech design. The exterior appearance of the van is protectible as a design patent. However, any new functional features of the van (i.e., double-locking doors, retractable windows or double cut-away sun roof) are protectible by utility patents. In this way, design and utility patents coexist. One way to separate the design and utility patents is to inquire whether the absence of the novel design feature effects the function of the device. For example, if the patented design of a guitar were altered, would it effect the method by which the guitar functions? If not, it is protected under design patent.

The requirements for a design patent are that it be new, original and ornamental. The requirement of ornamentality means that the design is not utilitarian and is not concealed. That is, the design is visible during normal use. This requirement can be satisfied if the design is visible at the time of sale or in an advertisement. For example, the design of a hip prosthesis may not be visible when in use, but it is visible at the time of purchase and in advertisements. In this section, we provide some basic information on design patents.