This article presents a new set of empirical results to support the theoretical construct that design patents fill a gap in trade dress law protection. Based on the data, I tentatively reject the oft-stated conventional wisdom that design patents are worthless for many because procurement is too slow, expensive, and difficult. Rather, based on a first-of-its-kind analysis of the prosecution history files of a large sample of recently issued design patents, I conclude that the current design patent examination system operates as a de facto registration system. Notably, more than ninety-eight percent (98%) of the patents in my study were issued without the Patent Office challenging their inventiveness. The dramatic rise in the number of design patents being issued indicates that designers find value in design patent protection, and a study of parallel design patent and trade dress litigation suggests that design patents are serving as a back-up or replacement for trade dress rights.
Dennis D. Crouch, A Trademark Justification for Design Patent Rights, Harv. J. L. & Tech, (forthcoming 2013).