Apple-Samsung Case Shows How Far U.S. Design Patents Have Come


By Lisa Shuchman

Posted: Aug.1st, 2012

The high-stakes battle between Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Ltd. that began this week in federal court highlights a significant change that has taken place in the world of intellectual property law since the 1980s and 1990s: the steep rise in importance of the design patent.

Back in 1988, Apple sued Microsoft Corporation, alleging the company had infringed its copyright on the “look and feel” of the Apple Macintosh’s graphical user interface. That suit, which Apple ultimately lost, was a copyright case in which Apple had to show to the court that Microsoft had actually copied the design and appearance of Apple’s computer. In 1994, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that under copyright law, “Apple cannot get patent-like protection for the idea of a graphical user interface.”

Fast forward to Apple’s current lawsuit against Samsung and the focus is once again on design. But this time, Apple is alleging patent infringement—not copyright. And while some of the case deals with utility patents—those that focus on how something works—much of it revolves around design patents, which center on how something looks. In fact, Judge Lucy Koh, who is presiding in the case, noted in an earlier ruling: “It is the design patents that are at the core of this preliminary injunction motion.”

“With this case, design rights have taken center stage in the world of patent law,” said Christopher Carani, a partner at McAndrews, Held & Malloy.

In the 80s and early 90s, patents weren’t as much of a focus in technology as they are today, according to Ron Epstein, chief executive officer of Epicenter IP Group. “But patents today play a more important role in protecting innovation,” he said.

Design patents in particular are playing a more important role. In 1994, for example, 11,000 design patents were issued in the United States, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s database. In 2011, the USPTO issued almost double that number: 21,356.

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