Design patents for vehicles protect the aesthetic shape and appearance of a vehicle body or component. Design patents do not protect the functional aspects, that is the sole province of the utility patent.
Design patents are granted for a new aesthetic
shape for an article of manufacture. Take
a look at this 1995 Porsche Boxster design
patent. Notice that the lines around the body
are drawn in solid form while around the wheels
it is hatched lines. This is called “environment”
which means that the Porsche Boxster can change
its wheel and change its designs but as long
as the body stays the same, there is going
to be infringement. A good friend of mind
attended a lecture that I gave, ironically
on design patents, after the lecture we went
out to the parking lot and I looked at his
vehicle. It was a Hyundai Genesis. I had an
E350 Mercedes. Both vehicles looked almost
identical. What I had looked up later was
that Mercedes never filed the design patent
on the aesthetic shape of the body of the
E350 Mercedes. That meant that Hyundai had
no problem in copying the design without any
repercussions. Since 2012 Tesla has filed
and issued over 34 design patents on various
aspects of their vehicles. What did they include?
The vehicle display, the supercharger station
that you park at, the Model X shape, the Model
X body design, the Model X door, the Model
3 instrument panel that has no instruments
on it, the Model X pedestal seat, the charging
connector that you plug into your vehicle,
the charging port that your vehicle has to
which your connector plugs into, the side
view mirror, the list goes on and on. Design
patents have big advantages. They are relatively
inexpensive to obtain. They last 15 years
from the date they are granted. And there
are no maintenance fees that you have to pay.
The recovery you can get on a design patent
is better than utility patents and it is also
better than trade dress recovery. You can
get back the lost profits, you can get back
a reasonable royalty you can even obtain an
infringer’s profits. So if you are thinking
about protecting your intellectual property,
that has a unique, aesthetic shape to an article
of manufacture, you should strongly consider
filing a design patent.
There are approximately 21,286 vehicle design patents in the United States with Ford Motors holding 1,983 of them. Separately, Jaguar Land Rover holds 346. New-comer Tesla Motors holds 34 design patents.
Monitoring design patent grants is an opportunity to obtain early-access to technical features and designs before a company might otherwise release the information to the public. For example, Waymo received a design patent last month for a rear sensor housing:
Notice that only the sensor is drawn in solid lines. Solid lines form the “claim” or “limitations” of the design patent. For there to be infringement of a design patent, anything in solid line must exist in similar form in the accused copy. Where the lines are hatched (or broken), that is donated as “environment.” That means that those shapes and arrangement may change without affecting the infringement analysis.
Design patents are likely the most under-utilized form of intellectual property protection in the United States. When Apple sued Samsung for infringing the iPhone with the Galaxy line of smartphones, the vast majority of the $400 million dollar verdict was derived from design patent liability for United States Patent Nos. D504889, D593087, D618677, and D604305. Those designs are reproduced below:
Design patents, particularly for vehicles, should see a strong resurgence with the introduction of new, electric powered designs that require high-efficient aerodynamics and distinctive styling.