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Tag: design patents

Line Differences in Design Patent Applications

Mesquites in Late Spring

The scope of protection of a design patent is defined by the drawings presented therein.  In that way, design patents can often seem like a very simple or straightforward form of protection: show some drawings in an application, file it, get a patent a year later.  Not quite.

The Patent Office manual for examination plainly states:

“The necessity for good drawings in a design patent application cannot be overemphasized.  As the drawing constitutes the whole disclosure of the design, it is of utmost importance that it be so well executed both as to clarity of showing and completeness, that nothing regarding the design sought to be patented is left to conjecture.  An insufficient drawing may be fatal to validity … Moreover, an insufficient drawing may have a negative effect with respect to the effective filing date of a continuing application.” – MPEP 1503.01

The Patent Office quote indicates how important drawing quality is from a validity and examination standpoint, and acknowledges the subtle dangers in haphazard drawing generation.  However, to this should be added that good drawings will also drastically affect the strength of a design patent.

The creation of design patent drawings has to be undertaken very carefully.  The lines illustrating the design are shown in solid lines and broken lines.  Solid lines define the actual protected design, while the broken lines show contextual information.

Broken lines are most commonly used to show environment and to define the boundaries of the claimed design.  Broken lines may show environmental structure or a feature that the design fits onto or is located near, to show the structure in context in its environment.  Broken lines may show portions of a claimed design which are unclaimed.  In some cases, broken lines may illustrate claimed design, such as stitching and fold lines.  However, broken lines are not permitted for the purpose of identifying portions of a claimed design which are immaterial or unimportant.  Broken lines cannot be used to show hidden planes or hidden lines – lines which cannot be seen behind opaque materials.  Broken lines can’t be used in design patent drawings to show alternate positions of a structure, such as a door moving between open and closed positions.

Broken lines may be drawn along a boundary that does not actually exist in reality.  For example, while broken lines are often drawn along real lines, such as the edge or corner of a table, broken lines could be shown extending across the face of the table’s smooth top.  This would show that the top – or a portion of the top – is not claimed.  Creative and flexible use of broken lines can drastically alter the scope of the design patent protection – intentionally or unintentionally.  They also present a powerful to build a packet fence around a design.  Apple granted multiple patents on the iPhone design, each with a different permutation of broken and solid lines:

Broken line permutations in design patent drawings

 

When broken lines are used, they must be explained.  A statement must be included in the specification explaining the significance of the broken lines.  Sometimes, if the broken lines are used for different reasons, slightly different broken lines are used and each is explained.

There are a lot of ways to prepare a good design patent application, and a lot of ways to mess it up.  When considering design patent protection, I strongly recommend you hire a registered patent attorney to do so, and that ensure that that attorney uses a professional patent draftsman experienced in creating design patent drawings for the United States.  You will rely both on the expertise of the attorney in deciding what views to show, how many views to show, and what material should be claimed and unclaimed, and also on the ability of the draftsman to deliver on instructions from the attorney.



Design Patent Rocket Docket

Near Eaton Canyon, Pasadena

The “Rocket Docket” program is the system the US Patent Office established to speed up the examination of design patent applications.  Recognizing that design patents cover the external appearance of an item, and that this external appearance, contrasted with the underlying guts, can often be easily copied, the Patent Office created a way to hurry along examination of design patent applications.  Formally known as Expedited Examination but referred to by practitioners and the USPTO alike as the Rocket Docket (even PTO forms use the doc code: “ROCKET”), this program can shave as much as a year off the pendency of a design patent application.

As of March 2020, the average time to a first office action – a first substantive review of a design patent application – was 15.2 months with a total average time from filing to issuance at 21.4 months.  Both of these numbers have been slowing creeping up over the years.  In contrast, it takes just over one month from the day an expedited exam request is granted to the first examination of a rocket docket design patent application.  This is an incredible savings in time.  So, what does it cost?

To be eligible for the rocket docket, a design applicant must conduct a pre-examination search and file a Request for Expedited Examination.  The request includes information about the pre-exam search, and the results of the search must be disclosed in an accompanying information disclosure statement.  Lastly, a fee must be paid.  Currently, the fee for small entities is $450.  This is relatively cheap compared to the cost of expediting a utility patent application for $2,000, but the pre-exam search can be costly, often running more than $2,000.  A thorough search must be run, because the Patent Office leans on that search heavily as a way to reduce the amount of time it needs to review the design application.

The US Patent Office states that the results of a search by a foreign patent office can be submitted in lieu of an internal pre-exam search.  However, it is questionable whether this is a practical approach, as most foreign offices merely register a design without search and examination.

Additionally, the design application must be complete when filed.  This means that the drawings must be acceptable and conform to the Office’s standards.  Drawings which contain errors or ambiguities are frequently an issue in design applications, so great care must be taken with these.  The basis filing, search, and exam fees for a design patent application must also be paid.  In short, the entire application must be complete and in condition for examination – this requires a lot of attention by the party preparing the application.

Failure to submit a request that properly reports on a competent pre-exam search can be basis to have the rocket docket request rejected.  As such, great care must be taken when conducting this search.  It is strongly recommended that a professional searcher perform this search.  Indeed, this firm uses an outside professional search to conduct the pre-exam search and even develop a report on the databases searched, the classes and keywords used in the search, and the results found.



Vagaries of Design Patent Practice

Sunset in Phoenix

Design patents protect the ornamental and aesthetic aspects of a functional item.  Whereas a utility patent protects the parts of the item, the way its parts cooperatively move or operate together, how they are structured and arranged, etc., design patent protection how that item actually looks.  They do this by presenting drawings of the item and then claiming protection in the design shown in those drawings.  As such, the bulk of a design patent application is the drawings, and there is relatively little written text accompanying those drawings.

Because of this, design patents can often seem to be simple.  But there is a subtlety in each application that requires anticipating the prior art, the course of examination, and the need for expansion of design protection in the future.  Complicating this subtlety is the relative scarcity of practical information regarding design patents.  This is a systemic problem, created by a few factors.

First, there just aren’t many design patents out there.  Pretty consistently, less than 10% of the patents issued each year are design patents.  In recent years, that is about 30,000 issued design patents.  About 40 to 45,000 are filed each year, so very roughly, we can say that a third of filed design applications go abandoned (design apps generally have a pendency of about 6-18 months, meaning they are likely to issue in the same or next calendar year, if they issue at all).

Not only are practitioners not filing a lot of design patents, but the ones that are filed don’t provide much feedback.  Design patent applications are never published, so the 15,000 or so applications that abandon each year do so in secrecy.  This is a tremendous loss of learning opportunity from these abandoned applications.  For comparison, around 600,000 utility patent applications are filed each year and about 300,000 issue; though utility patents have a much longer pendency than design patents, we might safely say that at least one hundred thousand utility patent applications are abandoned each year.  A majority of these are published, and the file histories can be reviewed to see what went wrong.  From that, patent attorneys can determine how not to write and prosecute patent applications.  But because abandoned design patent applications are not publicly available, we can’t study what goes wrong in them.  Instead, we have to rely on what went right.  Moreover, it is not uncommon for a well-written design patent application to receive a first action allowance – in other words, no rejections.  While this is a good thing, it does not help expand a practitioner’s understandings to the edges of design patent practice – could more have been claimed, could the claims have been broader, would there have been a reason to claim differently or present different drawings or more drawings or several embodiments, etc.?  Answers to questions like these are just not available except to perhaps – perhaps – the largest entities with tremendous legacy knowledge and systems developed to pass that knowledge to its team (and almost certainly a large team) of lawyers who may be spread and isolated across different and often competing large law firms.

The Manual of Patent Examining Procedure – the Patent Office’s guidebook for reviewing patent applications – is mostly written to utility patents.  Often decried as a manual for Examiners to craft rejections against patent applications rather than a guidebook for level prosecution (defining the limits of rejections and response arguments), the MPEP pays scant little attention to design patent applications.  This means that examination consistency suffers among Examiners and that practitioner’s counsel to clients becomes more nebulous.  Design applications are then written from a few perspectives: not just based on objective rules in the MPEP and case law (few design cases are ever appealed), but the particular client’s tolerance to risk and cost involved in preparing and arguing an application with an Examiner who may or may not read the rules in the same manner as the last Examiner, or even as they did six months ago.  Principled and rule-based arguments that may win in the well-defined arena of utility patent prosecution may descend into pleading negotiation with an Examiner in light of a refusal in a design patent application.

 

 



Utility and Design Patent Issuances Up in 2017

Nearly every year for the past decade, the Patent Offices have issued more utility and design patents.  2017 was no exception.  While former Director Kappo’s guiding hand has often been praised for increasing patent quality, the patent numbers during his oversight improved as well.  The Office was without an official director during most of Trump’s first year and is now headed by acting Director Joseph Matal.  Despite the uncertainty, in 2017, there were approximately 5% more issued utility patents and roughly 10% more issued design patents than in 2016.  Charts from Patently-O can be seen here.