Originally Posted by SolipsismX
I'm torn on SW patents. I think there needs to be a new category for protecting SW ideas that bridges aspects of both patens and copyrights with its own set of rules.
Trademark law and design patents do that pretty well. Here's a write-up I did back in the days of the first big Apple/Samsung trial that explains this:
Apple's assertion in its lawsuits is that Samsung has copied elements of the iPhone and iPad for which Apple holds several patents. These particular patents are known as design patents. It seems a lot of folks don't take these patents seriously and go as far as to suggest that they should not exist. There is a good reason why they do exist, but to explain this we have to begin with a bit of a side trip and requires that we speak about trademark law. Bear with me on this and hopefully I'll be able to clarify the purpose of design patents and provide some insights into the Apple versus Samsung trial.
Most people are familiar with the idea of a trademark. By way of example, Kellogg, the cereal maker, has a trademark on Tony the Tiger and fought a battle with Exxon over Kellogs' claim that the use of an unnamed tiger in Exxon's advertising violates Kellogg's trademark for Tony the Tiger. Why? For 30 years, Exxon used its tiger character exclusively to promote its gasoline blend, but then, in the 1990's began using it to sell food. Kellogg said consumers are confused by the similarity between the cartoon tigers and may conclude that Kellogg is somehow behind soda, coffee and other items for sale at Exxon's TigerMart stores. The case went back and forth for several years, with Exxon initially winning the case, but ultimately losing on appeal. This case would not seem extraordinary to most people as most folks understand the concept of protecting a unique trademark like Kellogg's Tony the Tiger character.
Now let's look at another case, one that comes closer to the Apple vs Samsung case, but still an application of trademark law. This case is Ferrari vs Robert's Replicas. Back in the 1980's Robert's Replica's was in the business of manufacturing fiberglass kits that replicated the exterior features of Ferrari's Daytona Spyder and Testarossa automobiles. Roberts' copies were called the Miami Spyder and the Miami Coupe, respectively. Ferrari brought suit against Roberts in March 1988 alleging trademark infringement.
Here's what this case was about: After Ferrari vehicles have been on the market for a number of years, the design of those vehicles acquires what's called "secondary meaning", a concept at the heart of trademark law. Secondary meaning refers to an association of a design, like the design of a Ferrari vehicle, with quality and craftsmanship or other positive attributes one might associate with the Ferrari brand. After a design has acquired secondary meaning, trademark law can be applied to protect the company from those who would copy its designs and use them to promote their own products. Robert's copying of Ferrari's iconic designs could confuse the public and dilute the strength of Ferrari's brand. Just the presence of large numbers of replicas would dilute Ferrari's image of exclusivity, causing financial harm to Ferrari. Trademark law, under the concept of secondary meaning, protected Ferrari. The courts ruled in favor of Ferrari in this case and enjoined Roberts from producing the Miami Spyder and the Miami Coupe.
But how does this relate to design patent law?
The problem with using trademark law to protect a company's designs (under trademark law a product design or package design is referred to as "trade dress") is that a product has to be on the market for a long time before its design acquires secondary meaning (i.e. before the design becomes iconic and is seen by consumers as representative of the company behind the product). When competitors come in immediately after a new product design is introduced and copy it, as is the assertion in the Apple vs Samsung case, the originator of the design doesn't have the luxury of time needed for its product design to acquire secondary meaning in the eyes of consumers. Consumers immediately see the same design from multiple companies and so don't grow to associate the design with the company that originated that design.
This is where design patents come in. Where trademark protection of an iconic product design has no expiration, it takes time for a new product to acquire that protection (as stated above). A design patent offers immediate protection of a new and novel design and for a period of 14 years thereafter, giving a company protection of its original designs until they acquire secondary meaning in the market and therefore protection under trademark law. So the design patent serves a valuable function for companies like Ferrari, and Apple.