Design patent

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US design patent D48,160 for the original Coca-Cola bottle.

In the United States, a design patent is a form of legal protection granted to the ornamental design of a functional item. Design patents are a type of industrial design right. Ornamental designs of jewelry, furniture, beverage containers (Fig. 1) and computer icons are examples of objects that are covered by design patents.

A similar concept, a registered design can be obtained in other countries. In Kenya, Japan, South Korea and Hungary, industrial designs are registered after performing an official novelty search. In the countries of the European Community, one needs to only pay an official fee and meet other formal requirements for registration (e.g. Community design at OHIM, Germany, France, Spain).

For the member states of WIPO, cover is afforded by registration at WIPO and examination by the designated member states in accordance with the Geneva Act of the Hague Agreement.

Henry James. Patent Model, Mechanical Chair, ca. 1872. This rare surviving model of an adjustable chair was part of the process to secure a patent in the United States in the late nineteenth century. There were two types of patents: utility, or technical, patents and design patents. The later was for two-dimensional inventions such as carpet and textile designs. The former, more common type was for all other inventions, both mechanical and scientific. The patent process required three elements: a scaled, fully functional model not more than one foot square, detailed line drawings, and a letter describing the innovation. Inventors usually hired a lawyer to help secure the patent, and the lawyer in turn had contacts with professional model makers and draftsmen to render the detailed models and drawings. Once approved, the patent was good for up to seventeen years. Brooklyn Museum


Apple v Samsung showing the effect of solid and broken lines on infringement [1]

A US design patent covers the ornamental design for an object having practical utility. An object with a design that is substantially similar to the design claimed in a design patent cannot be made, used, copied or imported into the United States. The copy does not have to be exact for the patent to be infringed. It only has to be substantially similar.[2] Design patents with line drawings cover only the features shown as solid lines. Items shown as dotted lines are not covered. This is one of the reasons Apple was awarded a jury verdict in the US case of Apple v Samsung. Apple's patent showed much of their iPhone design as broken lines. It didn’t matter if Samsung was different in those areas. The fact that the solid lines of the patent were the same as Samsung's design meant that Samsung infringed the Apple design patent.[1]

Computer images[edit]

Both novel fonts and computer icons can be covered by design patents. Icons are only covered, however, when they are displayed on a computer screen, thus making them part of an article of manufacture with practical utility.[3] Screen layouts can also be protected with design patents.[4]

Food Products[edit]

The functionality of food products such as stacking two hollowed out cucumbers halves to form a closed container can be covered by design patents.[5] US design patent D527165 S1 is possible the only know patent for the redesign of a whole food. [6][7][8]

US design patent D527165 S1 Cucumber Sandwich, the ornamental design for a cucumber sandwich, inventor Alex Stenzel. The patent protects the trademarked food product Gorilla Sandwich.

Publication of application[edit]

In China, Canada, Japan, South Africa, and the United States,[9] a design patent application is not published and is kept secret until granted.

In Brazil, the applicant can request that the application be kept in secrecy for a period of 180 days from the filing date. This will also delay the prosecution and granting of the application for 180 days.

In Japan, an applicant can request that a design be kept secret for a period of up 3 years after the registration has been granted.

Notable design patents[edit]

Other forms of protection[edit]

Utility patents[edit]

US utility patents protect the functionality of a given item. Providing the maintenance fees are paid, utility patents are generally valid for up to 20 years from the date of filing (with some exceptions).[13]

Design patents cover the ornamental nonfunctional design of an item. Design patents can be invalidated if the design has practical utility (e.g. the shape of a gear). Design patents are valid for 14 years from the date of issue if filed prior to May 13, 2015, or 15 years from the date of issue if filed on or after May 13, 2015.[14][15] There are no maintenance fees.


Copyright prevents nonfunctional items from being copied. To show copyright infringement, the plaintiff must show the infringing item was copied from the original. The copyrighted artistic expression must either have no substantial practical utility (e.g. a statue) or be separable from the useful substrate (e.g. picture on a coffee mug).

Design patents, on the other hand, cover the ornamental aspects of functional items from being infringed. One does not have to show that the infringing item was copied from the original. Thus a design that was arrived at independently can still infringe a design patent.

Many objects can be covered by both copyright and design patents. The Statue of Liberty is one such example.[16][17]

Trademark and trade dress[edit]

Trademarks and trade dress are used to protect consumers from confusion as to the source of a manufactured object. To get trademark protection, the trademark owner must show that the mark is not likely to be confused with other trademarks for items in the same general class. The trademarks can last indefinitely as long as they are used in commerce.

Design patents are only granted if the design is novel and not obvious for all items,[18] even those of different utility than the patented object. An actual shield of a given shape, for example, can be cited as prior art against a design patent on a computer icon with a shield shape. The validity of design patents is not affected by whether or not the design is commercialized.

Items can be covered by both trademarks and design patents. The contour bottle of Coca-Cola, for example, was covered by a now expired design patent, U.S. Patent D48,160, but is still however protected by at least a US registered trademark.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Nowotarski, Mark, “Strong Design Patents: The Power of The Broken Line”, IP Watchdog, 30 July 2013”
  2. ^ U.S. Court of Appeals ruling, EGI vs. Swisa, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Sept. 22, 2008.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Nowotarski, Mark “Protecting the Look and Feel of Your Insurance Illustration with Design Patents”, Insurance IP Bulletin, 15 August 2006
  5. ^ "Google Patents". USPO. Aug 29, 2006. USD527165 S1 
  6. ^ Wright, Daniel (7 December 2006). "Cucumber Sandwich". I only tip my hat to true innovations—those deemed patentable by the supreme beings at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. 
  7. ^ S1 USD527165 S1, Stenzel, Alex, "Cucumber Sandwich", published 29 August 2006 
  8. ^ Wright, Daniel (5 May 2009). Patently Silly: From the Collapsible Walker to the Incinerating Toilet, the Craziest Inventions Ever Devised (Book). Patent Silly. The Lyons Press. ISBN 159921573X. Someone very wise once said, "Necessity is the mother of invention." Patently Silly asks, "Who is the father?" 
  9. ^ 35 U.S.C. § 122(b)(2)(A)(iv)
  10. ^ "American Legion Auxiliary Public Relations Handbook" (PDF). January 2005. p. 43. 
  11. ^ In Brief: Amendment Extending Patent Passed in Senate. BNA Patent, Trademark & Copyright Journal, June 30, 2006.
  12. ^ Raustiala, Kal; Sprigman, Chris (August 3, 2012). "Apple vs Samsung: Who Owns the Rectangle?". Retrieved August 7, 2012. 
  13. ^ "35 U.S.C. §154(a)(2)". 
  14. ^ "35 U.S.C. §173". 
  15. ^ "Patent Law Treaties Implementation Act (PLTIA) of 2012, Public Law 112–211, December 18, 2012" (PDF). 
  16. ^
  17. ^ File:U.S. Patent D11023.jpeg
  18. ^ Du Mont, A Non-Obvious Design: Reexamining the Origins of the Design Patent Standard
  19. ^ U.S. Federal Trademark Registration No. 696,147

External links[edit]