Best Practices for Design Patents- Use of Solid vs. Broken (Phantom) Lines

By Debby Winters

As we already discussed in this series of blog posts about design patents, the solid lines in the figures of a design patent application function to define the scope of the invention. Broken (sometimes called phantom) lines may be used to show the environment in which the article is used, but do not form a part of the invention. Therefore, if a product includes all the features shown in solid lines in a design patent, but not the features shown in broken lines, that product still infringes that design patent. Similarly, if a prior art reference shows the features in solid lines but not the broken lines of a design, that prior art reference can still anticipate the design patent application. An application that includes broken lines should include a paragraph in the specification indicating that the broken lines are for illustrative purposes only and form no part of the claimed design.

In addition, broken lines may be used to broaden the scope of the design patent in a continuation application. For example, a continuation application may convert originally disclosed solid line structure to broken lines. Since it is the solid lines that function to define the scope of the invention, replacing solid lines with broken lines necessarily broadens the scope of the design patent. Again, the importance of using an experienced draftsperson cannot be overemphasized.

Best Practices for Design Patents- Figure Views Should be Consistent

By Debby Winters

Many rejections received by applicants during the prosecution of a design patent application involve inconsistencies in the drawings. Design patents require a sufficient number of views to completely disclose the appearance of the invention. Most design patents require seven (7) views of the invention – front, rear, top, bottom, right side, left side, and at least one perspective view. These views must be consistent with each other so a full understanding of the design can be reached. Elements shown in each figure should be shown in all others, assuming that the element can be seen in that particular view. Solid and broken lines should be consistent as well. This is one reason it is critical to have a draftsperson who is experienced at design patent drawings.

Best Practices for Design Patents-Drawing Quality is Key

By Debby Winters

As mentioned last time, design patents protect only the ornamental characteristics of the design, which are the features shown in solid lines in the figures of the design patent application. Therefore, good quality drawings are essential, as they define the bounds of what exactly is protected. The design patent Examiner will require good quality drawings in order to grant the patent, but the quality of the drawings will also be important down the road if and when the scope of the patent is determined and the particular design being protected is interpreted. Use of a draftsperson that is familiar with the drawing requirements associated with design applications is essential. I often have engineers ask if they can prepare their own drawings. I allow this with utility applications but I required an experienced design patent draftsperson who has experience with design patents.

Best Practices for Design Patents- Know the Subject Matter Qualifications

By Debby Winters

A design patent protects the visual ornamental characteristics of an invention. A common misconception is that if there is any utility to the invention, a design patent is not available to cover the subject matter of that invention. However, this is not always the case. If the product is functional but also includes features that are purely ornamental, a design patent may be obtained on those specific ornamental features. The question to ask is: what is unique? Is it the look of the invention, or only the function? If the design of the invention is dictated by function and lacks ornamentality, then a design patent would not be appropriate. However, if only the look of the invention is unique, or if both the look and function are unique, then a design patent may be appropriate.

Additionally, any time neither a utility or design patent are appropriate, always consider whether trade dress is appropriate.

Best Practices for Design Patents

By Debby Winters

The first examination to undertake is to understand what a design patent is and how it differs from a utility patent.

U.S. design patents cover the ornamental design of an object having practical utility. The subject matter claimed is the design embodied in or applied to the article and not the article itself.  In other words, the 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. In contrast to a utility patent that protects the way an article is used and works,  a design patent protects the way an article looks.

I am often asked whether a client should seek a design or a utility patent. While it depends on the invention, a U.S. design patent provides a number of advantages when compared to a U.S. utility patent. First, design patents have a higher allowance rate. Second, design patents have a faster time to final resolution. Finally, design applications are typically less than half the cost of utility applications due to their expedited prosecution and the limited specification required in design patent applications.

The five areas for our discussion on best practices will focus around the following:

  1. Know the Subject Matter Qualifications
  2. Drawing Quality is Key
  3. Figure Views Should be Consistent
  4. Use of Solid vs. Broken (Phantom) Lines
  5. Include Additional Embodiments

We will discuss each in a separate blog post starting with the first so keep reading!

Design Patent, Copyright, or Trade Dress?

By Debby Winters

I recently met with a client who wondered if they should register their product for a copyright, a patent; either design or utility, or for trade dress protection. Sometimes it is hard to decide between the various types of intellectual property protection and sometimes you can use several for the same product. Because borders between the types of protection are not always clear, it may be that some subject matter is eligible for protection in more than one category. It may also be that qualifying for protection in one category excludes the subject matter from protection in another.

Design patents protect the ornamental features of a manufactured article (while utility patents protect the utilitarian features). The drawings of a design patent show the parameters of design patent protection. Design patents remain in force for 14 years from the date the patent was granted if the application was filed before May 13, 2015 and for 15 years from the date the patent was granted if the application was filed on or after May 13, 2015.

Trade dress is a type of trademark that protects packaging or product configuration. Like other trademarks, trade dress marks serve as indicators of source. To qualify for trade dress protection, packaging or product configuration must be non-functional (that is, the features protected as trade dress must not be necessary for competitors to have to compete against the claimant) and must be either inherently distinctive or have acquired distinctiveness. Product configuration marks are considered inherently not distinctive and must acquire distinctiveness in order to qualify for trademark protection. Trade dress marks (like other marks) may be protected for an indefinite length of time.

A product design or feature is functional if it is essential to the use or purpose of the article or if it affects the cost or quality of the article. There are several factors one may consider to determine if a feature is functional. One factor is whether the features that are the subject of an application seeking to register trade dress were also the subject of claims in a utility patent. If so, the utility patent is strong evidence that the features are functional and therefore ineligible for trade dress protection.

But if a feature is protected by a design patent, that fact weighs against a finding of functionality (since design patents protect ornamental features) and may mean the design could be eligible for trade dress protection (even though it is still possible for other evidence to establish functionality). If the features are conclusively determined not to be functional, trade dress protection and design patent protection may exist for the same subject matter, either concurrently or consecutively, so long as the features are determined to be distinctive.

Deciding when, whether, and how to pursue design patent protection and/or trade dress protection may depend on a number of factors, including whether the design has been available in the marketplace before one files a patent application, and if so, for how long, and whether the features are inherently distinctive or need to acquire distinctiveness before they can serve as an indicator of source. Having a design patent may aid in the development of trade dress rights by giving the features in question the time to acquire distinctiveness while the design patent remains in effect and prevents others from using the design. It is possible to facilitate the acquisition of distinctiveness through the use of “look for” advertising that instructs consumers of the product to identify the features as an indication of the source of the goods and services. Then, when applying for registration of the trade dress mark, the applicant can present evidence of the advertising in support of its claim of acquired distinctiveness. If the advertising is effective, this should also allow the applicant to produce evidence that consumers recognize the features as an indicator of source. Thus, the applicant may secure trade dress protection prior to or after the design patent’s expiration.

Of course, not all packaging or product configurations that are worth protecting by design patents will merit trade dress protection. While obtaining a patent is typically more expensive than obtaining a trademark registration, design patents tend to be significantly less expensive to obtain than utility patents, and trade dress applications are often more expensive to prosecute than traditional trademark applications.

Consulting with an experienced intellectual property attorney will help decide the appropriate strategy for each case.

Should you get a design patent?

By Debby Winters

With the backlog of up to 4 years or longer at the patent office, many people ask if they should try to get a design patent when they have an invention that relates to the configuration or shape of an article. Design patents frequently can be obtained in as little as 6 to 8 months so they should not be ruled out in building a patent portfolio if the invention allows for one. Remember that any patent is frequently better than no patent. In building a patent portfolio, a series of design patents can sometimes be very powerful. Many times a design patent, although thought to be weaker than a utility patent, can still be used to scare away competitors, particularly if your competitors a small entities. Because design patents protect the way something looks rather than the way something functions, often a portfolio of design patents are used to build a strong wall around the invention. You should also consider a strategy of obtaining several design patents while your utility patent is pending. A combination of utility and design patents make an excellent team in protecting your intellectual property rights.