What is a Design Patent?

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The main category of patents is Utility Patents which protect a new and useful invention. Light bulbs, car engines, and smart phone electronics are things with specific functions that work better than whatever they are replacing. These are protected by Utility Patents

There is another domain of patent law…design.

Design Patents are a relative backwater of patent law. But they are also a unique opportunity to get “Patented” status for a lot less money than a Utility Patent.

What is a Design Patent? It is a patent that is granted on a unique ornamental design for a product or package. In many ways, it is hybrid form of Intellectual Property with aspects of patent, copyright, and even a touch of trademark (due to its interaction with trade dress). They are applied for and examined like patents. And, the result is a real patent with an issue date and patent number (design patent numbers are generally 6 digits preceded by a “D”, like D678,015).

Design Patents are much simpler than a Utility Patent. They consist of only drawings, a sentence describing what each of the drawings is, and a single claim that just references what is shown in the drawing.

There really isn’t a lot for a patent attorney to do other than make sure the drawings and other information in the application meet all of the Patent Office’s formal requirements. The filing fees are cheaper too and expensive negotiations with the Patent Examiner are almost unheard of. Cheap (relatively) and easy.

The scope of protection in a Design Patent is limited. It keeps someone from knocking off the novel elements that make up a product’s look, but that’s it. It doesn’t protect the function at all. And even the aesthetic design protection is really narrow. It is slightly more expansive than exact copying, but not by a lot.

If a Utility Patent is possible for a new product, then a Utility Patent is best. Even a narrow Utility Patent tends to provide more protection and get more respect from competitors than a Design Patent.

But in many product areas and with many business models, aesthetics really are a distinguishing aspect of the new product and having strong protection against direct knock-offs is appealing. A Design Patent can work wonders, and at a fraction of the cost of Utility Patents.

WARNING: “inventor assistance programs” and similar businesses that claim they will help you patent and sell your invention often use Design Patents and Provisional Patents to make it seem like they are patenting your invention for much less money than patent attorneys charge. As you can see from the article above, a Design Patent is not at all equivalent to a Utility Patent. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.