One of Apple’s key weapons in its legal battle against competitors is a special type of patent that protects the visual appearance of a product. Critics have denounced these patents as a way to own “rounded rectangles”, but we may have to get used to seeing a lot more of them. Last week President Obama signed a law that will increase the term and scope of so-called design patents. The law could offer U.S. designers a new way to fight knockoffs—but some fear it will strain an already overburdened Patent Office and make America’s troubled patent system even more dysfunctional.
Design patents, which protect the ornamental features of an invention, are nothing new. To get a better idea of what they are, imagine a new type of fork that can pick up food better than ever before. The inventor could get a regular patent for the pickup function—but she could also get a design patent for distinct scrollwork built into the handle of the fork. A more familiar example is the design patents that cover the look and feel of Apple’s iPad.