Utility Patents vs Design Patents: Which is Right for Your Invention?

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Utility Patent vs Design Patent


In the vast realm of intellectual property, navigating the intricate landscape of patents can be challenging. Inventors often find themselves wondering: “Should I file a utility patent or a design patent for my invention?” Understanding the difference between these patent types and the protections they afford is crucial to ensuring the right protection for your innovative idea.

1. What Are Patents?

At its core, a patent is a legal protection granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that provides the patentee – the patent owner – with exclusive rights to their invention for a specified period. Within the patent system, there are primarily three types of patents: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. While plant patents cover new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture, this article focuses on utility and design patents.

2. Utility Patents: Protecting the Functional Features

Utility patents, as the name suggests, are centered around the functional aspects of an invention. Whether it’s a new and useful process, machine, or a composition of matter, utility patents shield the way an item works or its utility. To qualify, the invention must offer a new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter.

The utility patent application process is comprehensive, requiring detailed descriptions and often complex patent claims defining the invention’s scope. Upon approval, utility patent protection lasts for 20 years from the provisional application filing date, provided maintenance fees are paid at periodic intervals.

3. Design Patents: Safeguarding the Ornamental Appearance

Contrasting utility patents, design patents protect the ornamental design of a functional item, emphasizing its visual appearance and surface ornamentation for broader protection. The protection doesn’t cover the item’s functionality but rather its unique and ornamental appearance.

The design patent application process, while still demanding, is typically more straightforward than utility applications. A crucial component is the detailed drawings or illustrations showcasing the design from multiple perspectives. Once a design patent is granted, the patentee enjoys exclusive rights for 15 years without the need for maintenance fees.

4. The Overlap: Can One Invention Have Both?

Interestingly, the same product can be covered by both utility and design patents if it meets the criteria for which patent covers both functional and ornamental features. For instance, a uniquely designed chair with a novel reclining mechanism could be protected under both patent types.

Navigating the interplay between the utility patent vs and design patents can be a fascinating journey. Interestingly, a single invention can find shelter under both these patent umbrellas. How? The criteria are twofold.

Firstly, the product in the utility or design patent question must possess distinct functional features worthy of utility patent protection. This pertains to the invention’s core utility – how it works, what it does, and the novel processes or mechanisms it introduces. For instance, think of an innovative electronic device that introduces a groundbreaking method of charging.

Secondly, the very same product should also present a unique ornamental design. This design should be non-functional, emphasizing aesthetics and visual appeal, thus qualifying the competing product for design patent protection.

Bringing the two criteria together, consider our earlier example of the uniquely designed chair. It’s not just the novel reclining mechanism (functional feature) that could be patented but also its singular design, perhaps an avant-garde blend of materials and contours (ornamental feature). In such cases, inventors stand at a unique vantage point, securing their invention’s utility and design in tandem.

5. Plant Patents: A Quick Mention

While our spotlight primarily shines on utility patents vs design patents, it’s essential to carve out a niche for the lesser-discussed, yet equally vital, plant patents. So, what’s the buzz around them?

Plant patents are nature’s way into the patent realm. They provide a protective layer for inventors who introduce new and distinct varieties of living plant organisms, achieved through asexual reproduction. This means the plant wasn’t simply grown from a seed; it could be a result of processes like grafting or cutting. The uniqueness of plant patent lies in the plant’s distinctiveness, a marked difference from known varieties, be it in terms of color, shape, size, or other identifiable traits.

One might wonder, why asexually reproduced? Asexual reproduction ensures that the offspring are genetically identical to the parent plant, preserving the new and distinct characteristics the inventor seeks to patent.

As with other patents, timing is crucial. Plant patents bestow their protective embrace for 20 years from the filing date. During this time, the patentee enjoys the exclusive right to reproduce, sell, and even license the patented plant variety.

6. Choosing the Right Path: Factors to Consider

When contemplating the type of patent that best aligns with your invention, consider these pivotal factors:

  • Function vs. Form: Is the primary novelty of your invention based on function (utility) or appearance (design)?
  • Protection Duration: Utility patents have a longer protection period but come with maintenance fees. Design patents have a shorter lifespan but are maintenance-free.
  • Cost: Generally, design patent applications have a lower cost compared to utility patent applications.
  • Infringement: Enforcing a design patent often hinges on the “ordinary observer” test, determining if an average observer would see the patented design and the infringing design as substantially the same.

7. Utility Patent vs Design Patent: Seeking Professional Legal Guidance

Venturing into the world of patents without guidance can be a daunting endeavor. Engaging with a patent attorney or law firm specializing in patent law can offer invaluable insights, helping you determine the most fitting protection for your invention.


While the realms of utility and design patents can seem convoluted, understanding their unique purposes and the protections afforded is indispensable for inventors. Whether you’re aiming to shield the functional features of your invention or its ornamental design, being well-informed can make all the difference in your intellectual property journey.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles, and comments on michaelmeyerlaw.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinions and views of the author as of the time of publication.


Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles, and comments on michaelmeyerlaw.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinions and views of the author as of the time of publication.


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