A design patent (or an industrial design registration) protects the features of a shape, configuration, pattern or ornament applied to an article by any industrial process. The difference between a design patent and a utility patent, is that a utility patent protects the functional aspects of an invention i.e. the way an article is used or works, while a design patent protects new nonfunctional designs that appeal to the eye i.e. the way an article looks. A design patent only protects the appearance of the article and not the structural or utilitarian features. An article may be protected both by a design patent and a utility patent.
Examples include, iPhone graphical user interface (GUI), icons, Oculus Rift headset, LEGO pieces, and Herman Miller’s famous Aeron chair. To underscore the importance of design patents, in 2015 Samsung Electronics was order to pay Apple $725 million in damages for infringing patented designs of the iPhone. The patents at issue are D618,677 (a black rectangle with rounded corners), D593,087 (with bezel on surrounding rim), and D604,305 (a colorful grid of 16 icons.) Samsung appealed that verdict, and the case will be heard in the US Supreme Court in June 2017.
In Canada, an industrial design registration lasts for 10 years, beginning on the date of registration, and in the US, a design patent lasts for 15 years from the issue date.