In a series of cases spanning more than one hundred years, courts and the US patent office have made clear that design patents are not to be justified by a fact that the newly invented ornamental design aids in distinguishing a company’s product from those of its competitors. This article reverses that conclusion and argues instead that the trademark-like distinctiveness function that helps eliminate customer confusion is the most compelling policy justification for the continued protection of design patent rights in the US. In cursory language, a number of courts have suggested that the foundation of design patents policy follows the same incentive-to-create approach of copyright and utility patent law. I tentatively reject this traditional incentive model as unlikely to be important in most situations involving ornamental designs. Rather, I suggest the better justification for design patent doctrine lies in the notion that design patent rights serve as an alternative rule of evidence for trade dress protection. However, design patents are not merely a parallel alternative to trade dress. Rather, the existence of practical differences between the doctrines means that design patents rights are available in situations where trade dress protection is unavailable or uncertain.
This article presents a new set of empirical results to support the theoretical construct that design patents fill a gap in trade dress law protection. Based on the data, I tentatively reject the oft-stated conventional wisdom that design patents are worthless for many because procurement is too slow, expensive, and difficult. Rather, based on a first-of-its-kind analysis of the prosecution history files of a large sample of recently issued design patents, I conclude that the current design patent examination system operates as a de facto registration system. Notably, more than ninety-eight percent (98%) of the patents in my study were issued without the Patent Office challenging their inventiveness. The dramatic rise in the number of design patents being issued indicates that designers find value in design patent protection, and a study of parallel design patent and trade dress litigation suggests that design patents are serving as a back-up or replacement for trade dress rights.