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By J.D. Houvener
Patent Attorney and Founder

The intricacies of patents can be challenging, yet they play a crucial role in safeguarding our intellectual property. With two primary types at our disposal – utility patents and design patents – it’s essential to distinguish their unique characteristics and the varying protections they offer. This article will act as a compass, guiding you through the differences between these two patent categories, thereby ensuring you make informed decisions to protect your innovative endeavors. By comprehending these distinctions, you will be better equipped to shield your inventions and design aesthetics from any potential infringement.

Definition of a Utility Patent

A utility patent, the most common type of patent issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), protects new and useful processes, machines, manufactures, or compositions of matter. In other words, it safeguards the functional aspects of an invention. This can range from a unique software algorithm, or a newly invented chemical compound, to an efficient manufacturing process or an innovative household gadget. What these inventions have in common is that they bring a novel and utilitarian benefit, demonstrating not just theoretical potential, but practical utility.

For an invention to qualify for a utility patent, it must meet certain criteria. Primarily, it must be novel, implying that the invention doesn’t exist already in the public domain. It also must be non-obvious, meaning that the invention should not be an obvious idea or modification to someone with knowledge and experience in the relevant technical field. Finally, it must have a useful purpose; that is, the invention must have a practical application and must function as described.

Utility patents provide a strong level of protection for inventors, granting them exclusive rights to produce, sell, and use their inventions for a period of 20 years from the filing date. A maintenance fee is required to keep the patent in effect. This exclusivity helps inventors protect their market share, allowing them to capitalize on their innovation. However, it’s important to note that obtaining a utility patent can be a complex and lengthy process, often requiring the expertise of a patent attorney to ensure the application adequately describes the invention and its novel aspects.

Definition of a Design Patent

Design patents, unlike their utility counterparts, protect the ornamental or aesthetic aspects of a product, not its functionality. They guard the way a product looks, its visual attributes such as shape, configuration, or surface ornamentation. From the unique contours of a sports car to the distinct shape of a beverage bottle, or even the graphical user interface of a digital device, design patents cover the aesthetic components that give a product its distinctive appeal.

To qualify for a design patent, the design must be novel and original. That means it must not have been previously known or used by others, and it should not be an obvious alteration of an existing design. It’s important to note that the design patent only protects the appearance of the product, not the product itself. If the design is primarily functional rather than decorative, it would not qualify for a design patent, but may be eligible for a utility patent.

Design patents provide protection for a period of 15 years from the date of grant, with no maintenance fees required. The patent holder gains exclusive rights to make, use, and sell the design during this period. It is also significant to note that a product may be covered by both a utility and a design patent if it has novel functional attributes and a unique aesthetic. For example, a new kind of chair may have a utility patent for its innovative reclining mechanism and a design patent for its unique appearance.

Key Differences Between Utility and Design Patents

The primary distinction between utility and design patents lies in what they protect: utility patents protect an invention’s functionality, while design patents guard its ornamental or aesthetic attributes. Thus, a utility patent could cover the workings of a new type of engine, while a design patent might protect the unique look of a car body. It’s also worth noting that the invention or design must be novel and non-obvious for both types, but utility patents additionally require the invention to be useful.

Additionally, as noted above, utility and design patents have different durations of protection—20 years from the filing date for a utility patent and 15 years for a design patent. The application process for the two types also varies, with utility patents generally being more complex and costly due to their extensive requirement for details and claims.

Deciding Between Utility and Design Patents: Factors to Consider

When it comes to choosing between a utility patent and a design patent, the nature of your invention or innovation is a significant factor. If your invention has a new or improved function or method, a utility patent would be appropriate. On the other hand, if your invention pertains to a unique, non-functional appearance or design of a product, then a design patent would be more suitable. Again, there are situations where both may apply, such as if you’ve developed a novel product that boasts both a unique functional attribute and an original aesthetic design.

It’s also important to consider your business goals when deciding on the type of patent. For instance, if your competitive advantage lies in the unique functionality of your product, securing a utility patent could be crucial. However, if your product’s market appeal hinges on its design, a design patent could offer vital protection. The different costs and timelines associated with obtaining these patents may also impact your decision. Consulting with a patent attorney can provide you with personalized advice based on your specific invention and business objectives.

Bold Patents Can Guide You on Your Patent Application

Understanding the distinctions between utility and design patents is crucial when it comes to protecting your intellectual property. Whether your innovation revolves around function or form, Bold Patents is here to guide you through the patenting process. Our dedicated team of experienced patent attorneys can provide tailored advice and support, ensuring that your innovative endeavors receive the protection they deserve. Don’t leave your inventions unprotected; contact Bold Patents today for a free screening session and let’s safeguard your creativity together.

About the Author
J.D. Houvener is a Registered USPTO Patent Attorney who has a strong interest in helping entrepreneurs and businesses thrive. J.D. leverages his technical background in engineering and experience in the aerospace industry to provide businesses with a unique perspective on their patent needs. He works with clients who are serious about investing in their intellectual assets and provides counsel on how to capitalize their patents in the market. If you have any questions regarding this article or patents in general, consider contacting J.D. at