design patent functionality

Federal Circuit Decision Highlights Power of Design Patents

Design patents protect new ornamental designs for “articles of manufacture.” 

A recent Federal Circuit decision Auto Body Parts v. Ford Global Techs. (Fed. Cir. 2019), rejected a limitation on design patents, and highlights how design patents can be a powerful tool to secure demand in the after-market for parts and components.

The case involved design patents owned by Ford for certain components of its cars – a vehicle hood and a head lamp.  Auto Body Parts wanted to manufacture replacement parts for Ford Cars with the same designs.

Auto Body Parts argued that the design patents were “functional” and hence invalid, because consumers want to buy replacement parts to match their cars.  While arguably that would be a valid argument under trade dress law, the Federal Circuit rejected it under design patent law.  So, Ford’s component design patents were valid.

This decision highlights what can be a powerful strategy for manufacturers of products that have components that may need replacements. 

A design patent on components of a whole product (e.g., the headlamp of a car) can be leveraged to cover sales of replacement components.