Is US design patent protection available for a graphical user interface (GUI)?

Yes, it is possible to obtain a US design patent on a graphical user interface. The patent examining rules refer to GUIs as two-dimensional Computer-Generated Icons which may be statutory subject matter (read protectable) if they comply with certain guidelines [see MPEP 1504.01(a)]. Keep in mind that design patent protection covers the ornamental appearance and not the function of the graphical user interface.

Is a GUI patentable?

To meet the “article of manufacture” requirement under 35 USC 171, a GUI may be patentable if the two-dimensional image is shown on a computer screen, monitor, other display panel, or a portion thereof. Therefore, it is critical for a GUI design patent application to include certain features in the title and drawings.

How to title a GUI design patent application

To support the subject matter eligibility of GUI, it may be helpful to use a title such as “DISPLAY SCREEN OR PORTION THEREOF WITH GRAPHICAL USER INTERFACE.”

What should GUI design patent drawings show?

Besides showing the two-dimensional icon in black-and-white line drawings, the GUI design patent drawing should show at least the display area in broken lines (dashed lines). The figure may also contain an outer line of the device (e.g., tablet, smartphone, computer screen) also in broken lines.

The broken lines are shown for context only and form no part of the claimed design. A design patent application for a GUI should include statement explaining the broken lines, such as “The outermost broken lines in the figures show a display screen or portion thereof, and form no part of the claimed design.”

If broken lines are also used in portions of the GUI, then an additional statement should be included, such as “The other broken lines in the figures show portions of the graphical user interface that form no part of the claimed design.”

Is one view sufficient for a GUI design patent application?

Design patents for three-dimensional objects typically require at least six views: front, rear, top, bottom, left and right. Since a GUI is a two-dimensional image without structure, a single view may suffice.

Can a GUI design patent application contain multiple embodiments?

Yes, it is common for US design patents to include multiple embodiments of a GUI. The guiding principle is that all the embodiments in one application should relate to a single design.

Is an animated GUI protectable?

Yes, US design patents are available for animations. The key is clearly illustrating the sequence with two or more views. A descriptive statement should also be included to explain the sequential views. MPEP Section 1504.01(a) IV provides helpful examples of descriptive statements for animation:

“The subject matter in this patent includes a process or period in which an image changes into another image. This process or period forms no part of the claimed design;” or

“The appearance of the transitional image sequentially transitions between the images shown in Figs. 1-8. The process or period in which one image transitions to another image forms no part of the claimed design;” or

“The appearance of the transitional image sequentially transitions between the images shown in Figs. 1-8. No ornamental aspects are associated with the process or period in which one image transitions to another image.”

GUI design patents as cheaper and easier alternative to software patents?

Utility patent protection for software can be quite challenging in the US. Given the high allowance rate of US design patent applications, it may be a smart and cost-effective strategy to pursue design patents on a variety of GUI’s, either in addition to or in lieu of utility patent protection.

Keep in mind that design patents generally do not provide as broad of a coverage as utility patents. Nonetheless, it may be better to own a portfolio of granted design patents versus zero utility patents.

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Vic Lin

Vic Lin

Startup Patent Attorney | IP Chair at Innovation Capital Law Group
We love working with startups and small businesses. I help entrepreneurs protect their intellectual property so they can reach their business goals.