If you are looking to patent an invention, congratulations! You’ve already put in the work of creating your idea and are now preparing for a really exciting (albeit challenging) journey to secure your patent.
That said, you may also be a little intimidated by the vastness of intellectual property (IP) law, particularly in the realm of patents and patent types.
Two common types of patents that have some overlap are design patents and utility patents. Here are the differences between the two to help you decide which one is the best to pursue for you and your invention!
Why Patenting Matters
No matter who you are (an independent entrepreneur, part of a startup team, a seasoned business owner, etc.), protecting your intellectual property through areas like copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets and patents will always be critical.
Filing a patent in particular will help you successfully compete with massive competitors who can otherwise easily steal your ideas and customers through their resources, influence and experience that can’t be matched by smaller businesses.
Patenting helps to not only level that playing field but to also ensure that the entrepreneurs who put in the time, work and talent to create an invention have the opportunity to benefit from that work through profit.
Additionally, patenting promotes innovation by encouraging entrepreneurs to work hard at their inventions with the peace of mind that there is a way to avoid having it snatched up by aggressive competitors.
JD Houvener, an IP attorney at Bold Patents, puts a special emphasis on patents when discussing intellectual property law:
“Patents aren’t the only way to protect your ideas, of course. There are copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets as well. That said, patents are the heart of IP law because they give strong, definitive protection to a unique idea or invention in a way that isn’t really matched by other areas. It’s an incredible accomplishment for any entrepreneur.”
That said, there are many different types of patents, and knowing the right one for you and your invention is the first step in your journey no matter what.
Basically, the purpose of design patents is to protect the look and appearance of an invention that has a protectable design.
What does this mean? Generally, a protectable design has specific and identifiable visual characteristics. These characteristics also have to be expressed through an item of manufacture; otherwise, it is possible that a copyright may be a better path.
This means that design patents do not protect the function or even mechanical structure of an invention but rather the appearance. Because of this, it is still possible that many different designs each receive design protection even if they have similar uses or purpose.
To touch upon the technical parts of a design patent, it will typically last for 15 years and are a relatively cheaper patent while also being somewhat easier to obtain (they are often awarded within 6-12 months while patents like utility patents can take much longer).
Best of all, design patents don’t require any maintenance fees. This is a pretty big deal since many patent types will require occasional fees to maintain over the years, something that can be a financial nuisance throughout the patent’s lifespan.
Alternatively, utility patents typically pertain to inventions seeking protection for their functions and uses. Most commonly, the inventions that can be awarded utility patents include new processes, machines, manufactures or compositions of matter. All of these things are dependent on their usability (structure, composition or function), making that the important element to protect.
Something particularly special about utility patents is that they often last up to 20 years, making them one of the lengthiest patent types available.
Something that sets utility patents above design patents is their nature of protecting how something is used, making it much more difficult to find loopholes that can allow a competitor to alter your idea but still take its essence. Additionally, they can cover many different aspects of your invention, giving a thorough degree of protection.
That said, these advantages definitely come at a price. Utility patents are much more expensive and difficult to obtain, and applicants can almost always expect their first attempt to be denied (and possibly even a few follow-up attempts as well). To top it off, utility patents have maintenance fees due 3.5, 7.5 and 11.5 years after it is issued.
These barriers can scare off a lot of smaller businesses or independent entrepreneurs who don’t have as many resources or safety nets to justify taking on the challenge. That said, any inventor who does manage to secure a utility patent absolutely enjoys the benefits.
Deciding between a design patent and a utility patent ultimately boils down to you, your invention and your personal needs, concerns and abilities. Fortunately, there are plenty of patent attorneys willing to have a conversation with you before any deals are struck to help you work through your personal needs so that you find the right path for you and your invention.
The most basic things to remember would be that design patents encompass the look and appearance of an invention while utility patents cover the functionality, so keep that in mind when brainstorming the plans for your invention!
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