Gary L. Griswold
Mr. Griswold is a Consultant residing in Hudson, WI and was formerly President and Chief Intellectual Property Counsel for 3M Innovative Properties Company. The essay reflects the views of the author. He wishes to thank Bob Armitage and Mike Kirk for their excellent contributions to the essay.
Design patenting has come of age. According to a recent World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) study, the filing of design patent applications more than doubled between 2004 and 2011. The stakes in design patent litigation today can be enormous. One commentator on the recent Apple-Samsung iPhone IP wars noted, “After operating in the intellectual property backwaters for years, design patents took center stage in the epic battle.”
Enterprises of all sizes have come to recognize the value to be had from securing patents on their innovative designs. This also means that more businesses now need to consider whether design patents of others might impair their freedom to operate when placing a new product on the market.
Unlike conventional (“utility”) patent applications, design patent applications are not subject to the “publication” provisions that were placed in the U.S. patent law in 1999 with the enactment of the American Inventors Protection Act (AIPA). Utility patent applications, with a few exceptions, must all be published and made publicly available within 18 months after filing. However, all design patent applications are required to be kept in secret in the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) until the patent issues on the application.
Today this secrecy can have significant and negative consequences – for the design’s creator and for those who commit resources to manufacture a similar product before the issuance of the design patent. Unlike most utility patents today, the first inkling that a patent is being sought on a new product’s design may come with grant of a design patent, in other words come at the end of the examination process in the USPTO.
The growing importance of design patents suggests that this exclusion from publication with respect to design patent application publication should be rectified by Congress. This can best be done by requiring that all pending design patent applications be made available to the public by publishing these applications at 6 months after the date that they were originally filed.
Doing so would put the public on notice, shortly after the design patent application is filed, that a new product’s design may be protected. The growing prominence of design patenting, as well as other developments in the law since 1999, now make it timely for Congress to act.
Two major pieces of patent legislation over the past 15 years have worked to make the U.S. patent law operate with vastly greater transparency, predictability and simplicity. The AIPA, with its requirement that most new non-design patent filings must be published at 18-months after their original filing dates was followed by a host of even more significant patent reforms. These were contained in the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) of 2011.
Key provisions of the AIA were designed to allow inventors to accurately assess whether they could secure – or had secured – a valid patent. For utility patents, access to earlier-filed patent applications comes though the AIPA’s publication provisions. Clearly, since some patents can take years to issue, holding earlier-filed patent applications in secrecy in the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) until a patent issued meant that an inventor might mistakenly invest based on the apparent validity of a patent that might then evaporate upon the issuance of a patent on a never-published, earlier-filed patent application.
The AIA also sought to assure that members of the public could more effectively participate in the patenting process. It allowed members of the public to be involved in the determination of whether a claimed invention in a patent application can be validly issued as a patent, both before the patent issues and after the patent issuance.
If action is taken promptly after a pending patent application is published, the AIA permits a member of the public to make a “pre-grant submission” of relevant prior art that the patent examiner handling the patent application must consider in deciding whether a patent should issue on the application. These submissions, most notably include the earlier-sought patent applications of other inventors that have been published under the AIPA’s provisions.
In addition, the new “post-grant review” or “PGR” provisions of the AIA permit a member of the public to raise in a USPTO proceeding any issue of a patent’s validity that could be raised in court by someone accused of infringing the patent. However, these PGR provisions, like the pre-grant submission provisions, require that an individual act promptly. In this case, the PGR petition must be filed within nine months of the issue date of the patent that is being opposed.
Given the formidable requirements for requesting a PGR, most individuals making a PGR request will benefit from advance notice that a patent is about to issue. This notice, of course, is automatic when the patent application has been published under the AIPA’s provisions.
The manner in which the AIA built upon the AIPA’s provisions, both with pre-grant submissions and with post-grant review, work to benefit patent owners and their potential competitors alike. However, while these new pre-grant and post-grant provisions technically apply both to design and utility patents, the lack of any “publication provision” for design patents means that these provisions are now significantly less effective for designs.
The Rationale for Excluding Design Patents from the AIPA Publication Provisions No Longer Makes Sense
When the AIPA was enacted, there were two significant exceptions to the rule that pending applications for patent would be published and made publicly accessible. First, these provisions allowed inventors seeking only U.S. patents to opt-out of the publication requirement. This was done for inventors interested in patent protection only for the U.S. market on the assumption that at least some of them might not want their inventions publicly disclosed if they were ultimately not going to be able to receive a valid patent. However, for almost all such inventions, marketing the invention necessarily discloses to the public what the invention is and, in fact, discloses much more about the invention to the public than would normally be found in an inventor’s patent application if published.
Thus, this rationale, particularly today, makes little sense. The inventor can be “protected” from public disclosure by opting-out of the publication provisions of the AIPA only in the situation where the invention is never commercialized and essentially has no economic value, or in the limited situations where the invention can be effectively practiced as a trade secret. Consequently, it is a protection that seldom affords any economic value to the inventor.
Under the AIA, the publication of an invention in a pending patent application provides an inventor with a guarantee that no one else will be able to successfully secure a patent on the same or a similar invention based on an application filed after the inventor’s patent filing. Where someone subsequently files for a patent, the earlier-filed application limits the later-filing inventor to validly patenting only subject matter both novel and non-obvious over what was disclosed in the earlier-filed application.
Design patents were totally excluded from the 18-month publication provisions. The rationale for the design patent exclusion can be found in the legislative history of the AIPA: “Since design applications do not disclose technology, inventors do not have a particular interest in having them published.” That statement, whatever its validity then, was made before design patenting came of age and has little relevance today, as evidenced by the litigation between Apple and Samsung.
Another reason given for the design exception was that “The Hague Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Industrial Designs” was being revised and that any change to the design patent law should await the outcome of that exercise. That outcome is now clear; Congress has acted to remove the exception for design patents filed under The Hague Agreement.
Yet another reason that design patents may have been left out of the mix when the publication provisions of the AIPA were being drafted was the short pendency of a design patent application. “Pendency” is the time taken by a patent examiner between filing and issuance of the design patent. With pre-grant submissions of prior art and post-grant review under the AIA now in place, that relatively shorter pendency before the Patent Office for design applications versus utility applications makes it much more important to have design applications not only published, but published quite promptly, i.e., at six months from the patent filing.
The last reason Congress may have excepted design patents from publication is that some manufacturers may not have wanted the designs for new products to be prematurely disclosed, prior to market introduction. Under the AIA, however, the filing of a design patent application assures that no similar designs can be patented based upon a later-filed design patent application. In addition, early publication puts competitors on notice that there is a “patent pending” on the design so that they dare not copy the design without the risk of infringing a subsequently issued design patent. Instead of a problem for manufacturers, pre-grant publication carries with it undeniably important benefits.
In addition to the “notice” function that arises from publishing a design patent application, inventors whose design patent applications publish secure yet another benefit under the AIPA. They can qualify for “provisional rights” – that is the right to collect reasonable royalty damages from anyone who uses the design during the period from the date the user received notice of the published design application until issuance of the patent on the design. This again reflects the upsides of publication, much potential gain with a negligible prospect of incurring any pain.
The AIA increased the openness and transparency of the patent system by providing for pre-grant submissions and post- grant review. These provisions work to protect the public against patents that lack valid claims – and similarly protect the inventor from making investments in reliance on patents that could never be successfully enforced. Those aspects of the AIA are premised in part on the publication of pending patent applications. Whatever reasons can be cited for excluding design patent applications from these important provisions of the AIPA, such reasons now have only historic significance. Today, all design patent inventors deserve equal treatment. The availability of the benefits of publishing pending design patent applications should not depend on where a design patent inventor seeks patent protection.
In sum, the agreement to allow publication of design patent applications filed by U.S. inventors under The Hague Agreement represents a significant step by the United States toward achieving the open, transparent 21st century patent system contemplated by the AIPA and AIA. The increase in design patent application activity – and the prominence of design patent enforcement efforts – renders this a perfect time to remove the exclusion from publication of those design patent applications filed only in the United States.
 According to WIPO, in 2012, “the 1.22 million industrial designs contained in applications grew by 17%—the highest growth on record.” http://www.wipo.int/export/sites/www/freepublications/en/statistics/943/wipo_pub_943_2013.pdf, at p. 4.
 Most utility patent applications must be published under the AIPA’s publication provisions. The time period set for publishing utility patents is 18 months after the initial patent filing date. 35 U.S.C. § 122(b).
 The United States adopted a so-called first-inventor-to-file system as the principle for determining what subject matter can represent “prior art” to a claimed invention. Also, a number of subjective and non-transparent aspects of the rules on patenting were removed.
 Because prior art can be submitted to the USPTO anonymously, members of the public and competitors of the applicant are normally comfortable in making such submissions. Since the processing time is shorter for design patent applications than that of utility patent applications, a narrower time window (e.g., before the earlier of a notice of allowance and the later of (1) the first rejection or (2) 2 months after publication) would be necessary for submitting third party submissions.
 The implementing legislation for the Geneva Act of The Hague Agreement has been enacted by the United States and rules for its implementation are being finalized by the USPTO. Once the rules are completed, the formal process for membership will be initiated and completed. The Common Regulations Under the 1999 [Geneva] Act and the 1960 Act of The Hague Agreement provide for publication of international applications six months after the date of the international Registration (which occurs upon receipt by WIPO of the international application). This publication of the international application will be considered a publication in the U.S. under 35 USC 390. The U.S. will not allow deferral of publication. Thus, any concerns related to the early publication of design patent applications as a policy matter have already been decided by Congress in favor of publication.
 As with utility patent applications, the public may well be aware of better prior art for design patent applications than the USPTO. If design patent applications were published, interested members of the public could submit prior art to the USPTO with the result that any issuing design patents would have been more thoroughly examined, benefiting both the applicant and public.
 Because of the speed of issuance, design applications filed only in the U.S. would need to be published 6 months after their U.S. filing date. Any concern with timing of publication relative to commercialization would seem to be handled by a 6 month period between filing and publication, which mirrors The Hague Agreement, and the relatively rapid grant (typically 15 months) of design patents.
 By providing that publication under The Hague Agreement will be deemed a publication under 35 USC 122(b), the implementing legislation (35 U.S.C. 390) makes such design patent applications eligible for provisional rights under 35 USC 154(d).