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What Is the Difference Between a Design Patent and a Utility Patent?

A patent, in general, gives an inventor the right to sell, license or mortgage an invention. There are two types of patents. A design patent pertains to the invention’s appearance. This includes the way it is configured, the overall shape, and any decorative or ornamental features that give it a particular “look.” This can be particularly crucial if a product’s sales are affected by its recognizability or image. For example, Coca Cola’s original bottles are practically pop culture. So are the infamous Pet Rocks, or the unique shape of a pair of designer sunglasses.

A design patent, however, really has nothing to do with the way a product works. Once the inventor makes any changes on the practical functions or capacity of his or her invention, a utility patent is called for. One example of a utility patent is the shift form LED technology to OLED, since it covers a change from synthetic to organic materials. Some products may have multiple design patents.

Design patents last 12 years, but a utility patent lasts 20 years. However, the inventor must pay certain fees at pre-set periods to “renew” a patent and prevent it from lapsing. Since it can be an expensive process, it is possible for inventors to acquire a provisional utility application—allowing them to check if they can really earn money from their invention, or if the idea of a solar-powered toothbrush just isn’t worth patenting.

Patents can take up to two years to be fully processed, hence some advertisements that will say “Patent pending.” The patent only applies to the country it was filed. For a worldwide patent it is necessary to file an application at the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT).

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