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Design Patent vs. Trade Dress: Strategic Considerations for Protecting Product Designs
Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Product designs often serve as the cornerstone of a brand’s identity, evoking instant recognition and loyalty among consumers. From the iconic silhouette of Coca-Cola’s glass bottle to the distinctive shape of Gibson guitars, the visual appeal of product designs can be a critical asset in the competitive marketplace. However, protecting a product design requires careful consideration and strategic planning. Two forms of IP protection are the most common – design patents and trade dress.

1. Design Patents

Design patents offer a streamlined and cost-effective means of protecting the ornamental appearance of product designs. The allowance rate is extremely high – over 95% – and is usually complete within 18 months. The result is that a design patent is significantly easier and less expensive to obtain as compared to conventional utility patents. This might explain the growing popularity of design patents for protecting product designs across various industries.

Design Patents Filed by Industry1

Enforcing design patents can sometimes be more streamlined as compared to utility patents. For example, a design patent can be quickly enforced on the Amazon Brand Registry and other e-commerce platforms against copycat products sold on the platform. While Amazon does offer a procedure for utility patent enforcement, it tends to be more expensive and unpredictable.

However, design patents are not always an option. For example, a design patent can protect a functional article, but the protection only applies to the ornamental appearance of that article. So, a design patent on Crocs footwear does not protect the overall idea of a ventilated shoe. Instead, the protection only extends to the overall ornamental appearance of the shoe. And this protection only lasts for 15 years after the patent issues.

A design patent risks being overly narrow if its drawings contain too many solid lines. To counter this, a common practice involves converting unnecessary solid lines into dashed lines to broaden the patent’s scope and enhance its exclusionary effect. An example is below – the dashed lines do not narrow the design and are only provided to show the environment in which the design exists.

Is the End of Crocs Really Upon Us? Not So Fast. - The Fashion Law

Figure from Crocs Design Patent – U.S. Design Patent No. D517,789

2. Trade Dress

Trade dress is a form of trademark that protects the commercial look and feel of a product. Like all trademarks, trade dress indicates or identifies the source of the product and protects against consumer confusion in the marketplace. A classic example is the Coca-Cola bottle and how its shape and design immediately connect a consumer to the Coca-Cola brand:

A black and white drawing of a bottle

Description automatically generated

Coca-Cola Bottle Trade Dress – U.S. Registration No. 696,147


Trade dress protection offers several advantages. It can sometimes be considered broader than a design patent because it attaches to any confusingly similar design. Additionally, trade dress protection is not limited to a 15-year term, like a design patent, and can continue for as long as the trade dress is used commercially in the marketplace.

So why not protect every product design as trade dress? First, product trade dress is not protectable unless it has “acquired distinctiveness” in the minds of consumers.
The Coca-Cola bottle serves as an example; its distinctive shape immediately invokes consumer association with the brand, demonstrating its acquired distinctiveness. However, proving acquired distinctiveness can be difficult and usually requires consumer survey evidence or other more costly endeavors. As a result, trade dress protection is less common than design patent protection for product designs.

Second, trade dress protection does not extend to any functional aspect of the product. The functionality requirement of trade dress protection is stricter than that of design patents – anything that is “essential to the use or purpose of the product or [that] affects the cost or quality of the product”2 cannot be protected as trade dress. Many product designs include functions that cannot be separated from their branded “look and feel” and this disqualifies the design from trade dress protection.

Determining the optimal form of protection for a product design hinges on the specific attributes of the design and its commercial significance to the company. Navigating the path to protection demands meticulous attention to crafting intellectual property rights that are expansive yet defensible.



[1] This chart reflects the top ten owners of design patents over the past five years.

[2] Inwood Laboratories, Inc. v. Ives Laboratories, Inc.,456 U.S. 844 (1982).

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