Thursday, April 1, 2010

Protecting User Interfaces Using Design Patents

Software is rich with intellectual property rights and those seeking to protect the various aspects of a software product have several available options. Software functionality can be protected with utility patents. Software code and screen displays can be protected using copyrights. Logos, marks and other devices used to brand software can be protected as trademarks and service marks. In the midst of these options, use of design patents to protect computer-generated graphical displays may be easily overlooked. However, given the relatively low cost and quick prosecution cycle of design patent applications, some IP-savvy companies are turning to design patent to protect the most recognizable facets of their software products.

MPEP §1504.01(a) provides guidance as to some of the requirements that must be met for a design patent application targeting a computer-generated icon to issue as a patent. For instance, the application must be drawn to statutory subject matter as defined by 35 U.S.C. § 171 which, in the realm of computer-generated icons, requires that the icon be embodied in at least a portion of a computer screen. Also noteworthy is the fact that computer-generated icons that change appearance may also be subject to design patent protection, provided that the images and the process of changing between the images is properly supported in the application.

By adhering to these guidelines, several big-name companies have been able to acquire design patents covering much more than simple computer-generated icons. For example, D608366, owned by Apple Inc., is drawn toward a graphical user interface that appears to be directed toward display of contact information.

In another example, D606090, assigned to Microsoft Corporation, claims the ornamental design for a user interface that includes several elements including a magnifying glass icon, a box and star icon and a box and X icon.

As a final example, D603415, which is owned by Adobe Systems Incorporated, depicts what appears to be a user interface for displaying a particular document within a series of documents.

Pundits may argue that the protection enjoyed by a design patent is weaker than that afforded to its brother, the utility patent. But for those seeking to protect the particular look or distinctive elements of a user interface, design patents remain a viable, cost-effective complement to utility patents.

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