In 2012, the US enacted the Patent Law Treaties Implementation Act designed to enact national laws sufficient to allow the US to become a member of the Hague Agreement for the registration of industrial designs (i.e., design patents). The treaty was previously ratified but not put into law.
Now, the US has deposited its ‘instruments of ratification’ with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which is the final formal step for becoming a member. Under the rules of membership there will be a three-month delay and the US will become a member on May 13, 2015.
The benefits for design patent applicants: (1) the Hague Union offers an easy-to-use international design application that can contain up to 100 designs in a single application. (2) US design patent term will move from 14 years to 15 years. Although the USPTO has not released its final rules, it appears that these changes will only be effective for applications filed on or after the May 13 date. It is unclear to me at this point whether a continuation application of an already pending design application would be able to take advantage of the extra year.
Although the US will continue to examine design applications under the design patent regime, many countries do not conduct any substantive examination.
The US move to join Hague has been a catalyst for other countries as well with South Korea, Japan, Canada, and China, all expected to join in the near future. Most European countries (and the EU) are already members.