First - let's talk about how many types of patents there are. The normal classification is into three types of patents. Utility, plant, and design.
The most common type is a utility patent. This is the one you are probably most familiar with. It is basically a patent on the functionality of something - how it works. It can cover devices (apparatus), methods of doing things, compositions of matter, etc. Most patents are utility patents. Utility patents have a duration of twenty years from the date of filing, but are not enforceable until the day of issuance.
What is a plant patent? A plant patent is for protecting new varieties of asexually reproducing plants. That is about all I am going to say about plant patents for now. I don’t do plant patents and therefore am not anywhere near an expert on them.
And Now Design
It is worthwhile though to spend just a little time on design patents. Although not as common, you should understand what they can do for you. These patents are often mis-understood because when people first hear the term design they think this is a patent for the functional design of something. How it works. But design patents protect the ornamental design of something – what it looks like – not what it does.
To understand design patents let’s look at one of my favorite ones. In 1982 the patent office granted one to George Lucas – the creator of the Star Wars phenomena. The patent was for Yoda. Here are the first four drawings from that patent.
This type of patent is very simple. It always has only one claim and that claim is almost identical in every patent. This one simply claimed:
Followed by eight different drawings of Yoda. All from different angles. That’s it. But potentially powerful in this example. With this patent (and many others on the other characters in Star Wars Lucas could prevent cheap imitators from outside the U.S. from flooding the toy market with cheap Yoda’s (or Luke Skywalker’s) stamped out by injection molding machines. It could allow him to corner the Star Wars toy market. At least for a while. These patents have a 14 year life. Note that no functionality is claimed. It is not what Yoda can do – just what he looks like – or in patent parlance – his ornamental design.
I actually do not know if Lucas ever had to enforce this patent. But you can see the potential power. Although many businesses seldom consider patenting design, you should consciously think about whether anything in your business needs its ornamental look protected. Many consumer products use these patents to protect their look. Fonts are sometimes protected in this way. Give it some thought.
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