For the last 18 years I’ve repeated that design patents were underrated. Design patents protect the aesthetic, ornamental shape of an article of manufacture. They can also include the graphic user interfaces of computer displays and portable electronics. For example, the four-icon layout of the Apple iPhone was covered by a design patent and successfully asserted against Samsung’s Android graphic user interface. Some of the advantages of design patents include:
1) Far lower cost to acquire than utility patents;
2) Faster prosecution and grant of the design patent (as little as a few months if expedited);
3) No maintenance fees;
4) Substantial 15-year term; and
5) Less complicated litigation when enforcing against infringers
IP-savvy companies like Tesla are prolific patent filers not just to protect their functional inventions (e.g., compact battery storage, autopilot sensors, etc…) but also on the appearance of their products. Take the example of a charging station. My silver Telsa is charging at a “Leaf” station at Tampa International Airport. This station is somewhat generic in shape and entirely non-distinct. It is functional but conveys no brand association with its manufacturer.
By contrast, Tesla Motors, Inc. (now just Tesla, Inc.) secured U.S. Design Patent D749503 on February 16, 2016 for its supercharge post design. From hundreds of yards away, this design is recognizable as a Tesla supercharging station. The design patent protection is a hybrid of utility patent (limited, monopolistic term) and trademark (source identifier). No other manufacturer (until February 16, 2031) is permitted to use a similar design by which time it’s association with Tesla vehicles should be entrenched.