What is the Difference Between a Utility and a Design Patent

As an inventor, you may benefit from choosing to protect your invention to ensure that no one steals your ideas.  The way to do this is by applying for a patent though the U. S. Patent Office.  Design patents and utility patents are the two most common types of patents issued by the U. S. Patent Office.  While both patents seem somewhat similar and some individuals question whether they need both patents to protect their invention, both patents are used to protect specific aspects of an invention.  It is important to understand the difference between design patents and utility patents so that you can fully protect your invention.

 Utility Patents

 According to the U. S. Patent Office, “a utility patent protects the way an article is used and works (35 U.S.C. 101); while a design patent protects the way an article looks (35 U.S.C. 171).”  In other words, a utility patent protects the functional aspects of an invention while a design patent protects the ornamental appearance of an invention.  Because most inventions have some type of function that is inherent to that specific item, utility patents comprise approximately 90% of all patents issued in the United States.  They protect inventions such as a useful method of doing something, a process to make or do something, machines, devices, manufactured items and chemical compounds.

 Utility patents are more difficult to obtain than a design patent; however, they provide broader protection for your invention and make it more difficult for someone to infringe upon your patent.  You can protect several variations of your invention under one single utility patent making the expense and time involved in obtaining a utility patent worthwhile.  Once you have obtained your utility patent, you will be able to prevent others from making, using or selling your invention for up to 20 years from the date of the patent application.

 Design Patents

 A design patent protects the appearance of an invention.  While design patents are not as common as utility patents, they are less expensive and take less time to get than a utility patent.  If the main feature of your invention is its appearance, you want to obtain a design patent to protect someone from copying your design.  Unfortunately, design patents are easier to infringe upon by simply changing the appearance of a competing product.  Furthermore, design patents do not protect the way a product works and most inventions have some type of functional feature that needs to be protected.

 Do I Need Both Types of Patents?

 There are some inventions that are unique in both the way they work and their appearance.  These inventions may need both a utility patent as well as a design patent.  However, this can be a complex process; therefore, it is wise to consult with an experienced patent attorney prior to deciding if you need one or both types of patents.

Kelly G. Swartz is a patent attorney licensed to practice in front of the United States Patent and Trademark Office and in the state of Florida.  She limits her practice to intellectual property law including patent, trademark, copyright, and trade secrets.  More information about patents and other IP may be found at www.IngenuityLaw.com.


The United States Patent and Trademark Office, “Patent Laws, Regulations, Policies & Procedures,” Manual of Patent Examining Procedure, Chapter 1500, 3/27/2014