There are several different kinds of intellectual property protection (e.g., trademarks, patents, and copyrights). The borders between the types of protection are not always clear, and it may be that some subject matter is eligible for protection in more than one category. Conversely, it may be that qualifying for protection in one category excludes the subject matter from protection in another. This blog post examines the border between patent protection and trademark protection, particularly the border between design patent protection and trade dress.

Design patents protect the ornamental features of a manufactured article (while utility patents protect the utilitarian features). The drawings of a design patent show the parameters of design patent protection. Design patents remain in force for 14 years from the date the patent was granted if the application was filed before May 13, 2015 and for 15 years from the date the patent was granted if the application was filed on or after May 13, 2015.

Trade dress is a type of trademark that protects packaging or product configuration. Like other trademarks, trade dress marks serve as indicators of source. To qualify for trade dress protection, packaging or product configuration must be non-functional (that is, the features protected as trade dress must not be necessary for competitors to have to compete against the claimant) and must be either inherently distinctive or have acquired distinctiveness. Product configuration marks are considered inherently not distinctive and must acquire distinctiveness in order to qualify for trademark protection. Trade dress marks (like other marks) may be protected for an indefinite length of time.

A product design or feature is functional if it is essential to the use or purpose of the article or if it affects the cost or quality of the article. There are several factors one may consider to determine if a feature is functional. One factor is whether the features that are the subject of an application seeking to register trade dress were also the subject of claims in a utility patent. If so, the utility patent is strong evidence that the features are functional and therefore ineligible for trade dress protection.

But if a feature is protected by a design patent, that fact weighs against a finding of functionality (since design patents protect ornamental features) and may mean the design could be eligible for trade dress protection (even though it is still possible for other evidence to establish functionality). If the features are conclusively determined not to be functional, trade dress protection and design patent protection may exist for the same subject matter, either concurrently or consecutively, so long as the features are determined to be distinctive.

Deciding when, whether, and how to pursue design patent protection and/or trade dress protection may depend on a number of factors, including whether the design has been available in the marketplace before one files a patent application and whether the features are inherently distinctive or need to acquire distinctiveness before they can serve as an indicator of source. Having a design patent may aid in the development of trade dress rights by giving the features in question the time to acquire distinctiveness while the design patent remains in effect and prevents others from using the design. It is possible to facilitate the acquisition of distinctiveness through the use of “look for” advertising that instructs consumers of the product to identify the features as an indication of the source of the goods and services. Then, when applying for registration of the trade dress mark, the applicant can present evidence of the advertising in support of its claim of acquired distinctiveness. If the advertising is effective, this should also allow the applicant to produce evidence that consumers in fact recognize the features as an indicator of source. Thus, the applicant may secure trade dress protection prior to or after the design patent’s expiration.

Of course, not all packaging or product configurations that are worth protecting by design patents will merit trade dress protection. While obtaining a patent is typically more expensive than obtaining a trademark registration, design patents tend to be significantly less expensive to obtain than utility patents, and trade dress applications are often more expensive to prosecute than traditional trademark applications. Consulting with legal counsel will help decide the appropriate strategy for each case.

PS: Thanks to guest-blogger Sean Ritchie for co-authoring this post!