Thursday, September 15, 2005

Automobile Design Patents and 'Design DNA'

by Tom Bozzo

While searching for a (different) piece of patent legislation, I came across House Concurrent Resolution 53, which commends the Patent and Trademark Office for its contributions to the economy and DaimlerChrysler corporation for receiving the 500,000th design patent for the Chrysler Crossfire roadster.

Design patents protect ornamental designs that are new and that would be non-obvious to a designer of ordinary skill. By these standards, the Crossfire is as good of a candidate for design patent protection as any car design as it's a veritable anti-Audi TT, bristling with non-obvious surface ornamentation in areas where a designer of ordinary good taste might have left well enough alone. (Even still, the Crossfire's backside curve looks like a baroque crib of the TT's.)

As with other types of patents, design patents reference prior art, and some of the prior art for the Crossfire, and the prior art for the prior art, is kind of interesting in a car nutty way.

Among the not-totally-unobvious connections include the rare and very expensive BMW Z8 roadster (covered by D406,799; QuickTime required to view the design patent drawings) and the Toyota MR2 Spyder (D477,253).

Others are mystifying. The Chrysler Cirrus sedan (D370,876) has four wheels and is a Chrysler, and that's where the obvious similarities end. The early-nineties Honda Civic (D334,357) doesn't even share Chryslerness.

Deep in the tree of prior art, there's the first generation Acura (Honda) Legend (D301,436), which is notable for citing no previous design patents. Since the Legend clearly shared some design elements with other Hondas of the era, this might mark some historical shift to seeking intellectual property protection for car designs.

A reasonable question is whether design patents provide material protection. Little bits of design DNA cross intellectual property boundaries all the time — the traditional BMW rear roof pillar shape having been, er, adapted in the new VW Passat, whose shape is in turn substantially repeated in the Buick Passat Lucerne (but for the ridiculous portholes, great minds think alike, I suppose). Many of the iconic design elements now making their way into retro designs wouldn't be protectable at all, since if they had been patented back in the fifties or sixties, the patents would have long since expired. It's also not particularly easy to directly knock off the entirety of another car's ornamental design, and in some cases (like the Crossfire, IMHO) it's not clear that anyone would want to if they could.

(Note: Changed picture because of loading problem with the original one.)
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