Protecting a User Interface: Design Patent and/or Copyright



I have been reading that it is possible to file Design Patent(s) and Copyright applications on top of non-provisional utility filings.

To my understanding (I am an engineer so please bear with me :) that means on top of filing an application with claims covering how the guts of my application works (non-provisional or utility) I can now protect the look and feel of how I present the application to users (Graphical User Interface).

If these assumptions are correct, what is the difference between a Design Patent and a Copyright - specifically relating to protecting User Interfaces?


Posted 2013-06-10T17:26:50.183

Reputation: 315



Design patents protect the "look and feel" of a GUI. You don't have to show copying the way you do with copyright. A design patent is infringed if another GUI would be confused for yours by an ordinary observer.

Here is an example from Apple v Samsung

Comparison of patented Apple GUI vs Samsung infringing GUI

The Samsung GUI was found to be "confusingly similar" to Apple's patent even though there were many differences between the two. The Blackberry GUI was provided by Apple as an example of a GUI that had the same functionality but was not confusingly similar.

Design patents can be quite strong if properly written. Apple's iPhone GUI patent was worth several hundred million dollars. More information here:

Mark Nowotarski

Posted 2013-06-10T17:26:50.183

Reputation: 155

What a great answer. Thank you for the visual example. – Chris – 2014-05-01T15:12:59.307


I am not a lawyer, so take the following with an appropriate dosage of salt:

As I understand it, you cannot copyright a user interface, as determined in Apple v. Microsoft, primarily because it has a functional aspect, specifically: enabling users to interact with a computer. You can, however, file a design patent on your GUI.

According to Wikipedia, copyright only applies if the protected design has no functional/practical utility, which is where design patents step in:

The copyrighted artistic expression must either have no substantial practical utility (e.g. a statue) or be separable from the useful substrate (e.g. picture on a coffee mug).

Design patents, on the other hand, cover the ornamental aspects of functional items from being infringed. One does not have to show that the infringing item was copied from the original. Thus a design that was arrived at independently can still infringe a design patent.

Note, however, that design patents are extremely narrow, and a design patent will cover only the exact or almost exact appearance of that GUI, down to the smallest graphical minutiae of the GUI elements. One can potentially avoid infringing a design patent simply by changing dimensions, text content and/or relative placements of GUI elements. Infringing design patents of any practical intricacy through independent invention is rather improbable.

As an aside, Apple learnt an important lesson from its loss against Microsoft, the repercussions of which can be seen in its IP strategy today. For instance, instead of relying only on design patents, it also protected various functional aspects of the UI with utility patents, such as the over-scroll bounceback and touch input heuristics. These cover the technical aspects that enable the functioning and behavior of the GUI rather than its appearance. Hence, if your GUI includes, for instance, any custom elements whose functionality or behavior is novel and non-obvious, that may be eligible for utility patent protection.


Posted 2013-06-10T17:26:50.183

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