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Eames and a Primer on Design Patents

on Monday, 17 February 2014 in Technology & Intellectual Property Update: Arianna C. Goldstein, Editor

Inspiration and Introduction

Charles and Ray Eames are two of the most revered innovators in American history. Their creations continue in high demand and still inspire people decades later. Charles Eames is the inventor on multiple patents from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Those patents inspired this primer.


Patents are provocative in theory, but often dull in reality. “Method and system for maintaining client cache coherency in a distributed network system” is an exemplary patent title. Most people will agree that invention sounds boring, even though its owner is one of our mighty engines of innovation: Google. Patents can seem dull because most are of the utility variety. However, there are other types of patents. Specifically, the design patent better guards aesthetic beauty and is the patent variety more people should come to know and love.

Basics of a Design Patent

The USPTO issues design patents for new and original ornamental designs for articles of manufacture. Design patents only protect the appearance of the article, not features that are utilitarian or structural. This is because a design manifests itself through visual appearance. Designs can relate to an article’s configuration, shape, surface ornamentation, or some combination of the three. Design patents have a term of 14 years from the date of grant. It is during this term that an owner can exclude others from manufacturing articles that infringe the protected ornamental design. The basic test for whether infringement exists is called the “ordinary observer” test, which asks whether a person with knowledge in the prior art finds substantial similarity between the patented design and the accused design.


Design patents are distinct from utility patents in several ways. The most fundamental difference is a utility patent protects ways that an article is used or how it works, whereas a design patent can protect the same article but only for the way it looks. Another difference is that utility patents have longer terms (i.e., 20 years from the date of filing). Yet another difference of a substantial, practical nature is the emphasized content of a design patent versus a utility patent. In simple terms, the figures in a design patent are everything, whereas the written claims mean the most in a utility patent. The patent types have distinct levels of disclosure too. Design patents and applications contain descriptions of the figures, but they are of a limited nature compared to the written descriptions required for utility patents.


Design patents are also distinct from trade dress. First, it is important to note that design patents and trade dress are different forms of the same protection: both protect against third parties copying an innovative, non-functional design. Their differences begin to extend from this common starting point. Whereas patentable designs must be new and non-obvious, trade dress does not. Instead, trade dress protection requires a demonstration of secondary meaning attaching between the dress and the associated product (e.g., the contrasting red lacquered outsoles of Louboutin shoes). The “ordinary observer” test for design patent infringement is similar in principle to the likelihood of confusion test for trade dress, but trade dress claims can also allege dilution (i.e., blurring or tarnishment of the design). Finally, trade dress protection can last indefinitely, but sufficient secondary meaning can take a long time to develop; such meaning is not required before one applies for protective design patent rights.

Demonstrative Design Patents – Inventions by Charles Eames

In light of the details above, some of the inventive accomplishments of Charles Eames can be accented. Many people have seen and likely marveled over Eames’ lounge chair. Eames is the named inventor for a similar, now-expired design patent, U.S. D155,275. One can compare the underlying wood structures in the lounge chair and the ‘275 Design Patent to see likenesses between the two. The patent shows a contoured seat panel and a contoured, enveloping back panel with arm rests. These patent features are also seen in the lounge chair, but there are clear differences. The lounge chair’s back panel includes a head rest that attaches to the back panel by two supports, and the head rest is rectangular in width with a slightly elliptical depth. Meanwhile, the patent’s back panel includes a head rest that attaches to the back panel by a single support, and the head rest is more trapezoidal in width with a contoured depth. Another clear difference is the leather upholstery for the lounge chair. Herman Miller, Inc., the incorporated successor of the Herman Miller Furniture Company, appears to currently own trade dress protection over the lounge chair and accompanying ottoman. Any exclusive rights from the ‘275 Patent expired in 1963 (at the latest), while the Herman Miller company’s trade dress protection may still be active.


Another inventive chair from Eames came in the now-expired design patent U.S. D150,683. What is interesting about this chair is it clearly has ties to Eames’ inventive furniture construction that garnered utility patent protection under U.S. 2,554,490. The ‘683 Design Patent protected the ornamental design of the chair, while the ‘490 Utility Patent protected a “novel assembly of supporting parts for contour-conforming, individually mounted back and seat panels.” Eames assigned the ‘683 Design Patent to Evans Products Co., but he assigned the now-expired ‘490 Utility Patent to Herman Miller Inc., which prominently sells Eames-rooted furniture today.



Design patents form a fascinating piece of intellectual property law that more creators and product developers should consider seeking.

AriAnna C. Goldstein

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