Outside of certain industries, design patents have been a source of confusion and general apathy. Historically, design patent filings have severely lagged behind their utility patent application counterparts, and the discrepancy is even more evident when fields of technology or industry are examined. For example, a brief search in the U.S. Patent Office revealed very few (fewer than 50) design patents have been issued to “distillation” related technology. Similar searches of other industrial areas yielded similar results including “conveyor” (less than 200), “forklift” (less than 100), and “heat exchanger” (less than 150). Similar searches reveal the number of issued design patents all time in the United States was generally under 1,000 for many industrial related technologies. In contrast, industries having products with a known ornamental focus had a significant number of issued design patents. For example, design patents related to “shoes” (more than 7,400), “containers” (more than 13,900), and “flashlights” (more than 1,400) all extended over the 1,000 mark, and in many instances, over the 5,000 mark. So why the discrepancy?
Some industries are natural fits for design patents, including consumer product industries in which product design is cool and the sexiness of the look of a product is a very serious matter. You know the famous consumer product companies — the ones who hire marketing firms and/or have in-house design teams to make the product the most appealable to the consumer. On the other side of the spectrum, there are companies who manufacture a good product first and only secondarily consider the aesthetic aspects. These companies may sell to an end user based in a manufacturing facility, warehouse, chemical plant, or other non-public location in which function almost always prevails over form.