How To Protect UI with Design Patents

The takeaway from last month’s Design Day 2013 at the United States Patent & Trademark Office was clear — user interface design patents are more important than ever. “Generated Images” (i.e., user interfaces and icons) are the fastest growing segment of design patents.  An example is this one for the screen that displays contact info on an Apple Inc. device and this one for the page-turn animation granted to Apple.

User interface design patents make up about 2% of all design patent applications.  This translates to roughly 500 UI design patent filings per year with the USPTO but has been rapidly accelerating. To put this into historical context, Xerox filed the earliest application for a user interface design patent in the 1980s (which makes many Design Day attendees older than the first user interface design patent).

Apple Patent image

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With patents being applied for fast and furiously, it’s important to slow down and look at the process—and how we, as designers, can make it work for us. In the spirit of encouraging user interface designers to improve their education and processes around patents, here are some things I learned on Design Day that might help:

  • Some of the basic requirements for user-interface design patents include referencing a physical object or system such as a computer or display screen. This seems anachronistic at first, but it makes sense when you think of user interface as an extension of a product (and of a patent on a physical product).
  • Dynamic interactions such as animations or transitions can be submitted as a series of static images like a “flip book” or storyboard. The images included in your application are the only ones covered by the patent.
  • If you have an animation with fifty image points, you may not be able to submit fifty drawings, so make sure you choose the ones that are most unique.
  • Design patents are only one form of IP protection for user interfaces, which can also be covered by utility patents, trademarks, and copyrights.  Charles Mauro of MauroNewMedia suggests all of these forms of IP protection are needed to cover the entire user experience (UX).

Since the USPTO doesn’t currently integrate processes, designers and firms need to be strategic. Part of Apple’s strategy in their case against Samsung was to include multiple design patents, utility patents, and trade dress IP.  Including trade dress IP enabled Apple to show their device (as opposed to only showing the patent drawings) to the jury during the Apple v. Samsung trial, which surely strengthened their case.

From a UI designer’s perspective, not any one type of protection is sufficient — but they’re all necessary. We can’t all afford to apply for as much IP as Apple can, but it’s a good exercise to think holistically about your product — how many protections are relevant to create a watertight seal around your work?