This past Tuesday, Apple obtained a preliminary injunction preventing Samsung from selling its Galaxy Tab tablet. A preliminary injunction was granted before the trial was concluded since Apple demonstrated that it would suffer probable success on the merits and irreparable harm. Interestingly, the basis for the injunction was a design patent (D504889) that Apple obtained for its iPad tablet.
Design patents only secure ornamental product attributes, so the patent term is somewhat of a misnomer since utility patents, issued for working inventions, are much more prevalent and are typically what comes to mind when the term patent is used.
For some time design patents were seen as offering little protection to their owners. The Cout of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s decision in the Apple case, however, breathes new life into design patents.
Since design plays a large role in certain consumer product markets, for example, autos, jewelry, fashion, and consumer electronics, it seems like the courts are more willing to extend property rights to aesthetic innovations. In some markets, design is an important if not essential element of the consumer’s purchase criteria, a source of differentiation from competitors, and an important element of branding and goodwill.
Resorting to the legal system to protect designs, however, as anyone within Apple can attest, remains a lengthy, expensive and uncertain process. Apple first requested the injunction on July 2011 and only recently obtained the order to prevent Samsung from free-riding on Apple’s investments in design-based innovations.
Another important design-related intellectual property case that will be decided soon on appeal is the Louboutin red sole trademark case. This case is currently on appeal at a federal appellate court which will review the New York trial court’s decision to revoke Louboutin’s trademark for its famous and distinctive red sole. Trademarks have a dual purpose to protect consumers from confusion and to protect the property attributes of designs that have become sources of differentiation among consumers. If the New York appellate courts follow the logic of the appellate court in the Apple case, they will reverse the trial court judge and affirm Louboutin’s red sole as a validly procured property right.