Shark Tank and the Types of Patents

On a recent episode of Shark Tank, the hosts asked the perennial question: “what patent protection do you have?”  The idea presenter said he had 4 patent applications and a design patent application.  Since some may ask what’s the difference, let me add my two cents worth;)

A patent application, particularly a utility patent application and resultant patent, is directed to a system, process, device, chemical or improvement thereof, and covers the ideas described or disclosed within the contours of the patent document or Specification.  Since ideas can be manifested or embodied in different ways, the patent application should be drafted to encompass various ways of implementing the idea(s), i.e., the various functionalities.  Thus, alternative embodiments, perhaps not expressly addressed in the Specification, may be deemed to be covered and infringe.  Although current patent law interpretation may place some restrictions on the extent of the coverage of these alternatives, in utility patents it is the idea that is covered.

A design patent application, however, is directed to the ornamental aspects relating to a design, i.e., how the particular design appears to the observer.  Unlike utility patents which can cover various implementations or functionalities, a design patent just covers that design and not necessarily variations thereof.  If, however, someone makes a copy substantially similar to the design patent claim, then infringement may occur.

Although utility patents are generally stronger than design patents, each have their place.  The recent Apple v. Samsung patent wars involved fights over iPhone design patents covering the appearance, and not just the functional aspects within the phones.

As patents are critical to many businesses, especially start-up companies, the Sharks and other investors are very interested in patents, which are usually the most important asset for a company.  I hope that this short description from my patent law course is helpful. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

This is the first of hopefully many blogs on the importance of intellectual property. I hope to maintain a regular blog. If anyone has ideas on what questions are most keen, please feel free to reach out to me. vandyke@acm.org

And have a Happy Thanksgiving!