Without doubt, robots today are much more consumer-facing than they have ever been. According to ABI Research , the global market for consumer robots was estimated at $1.6 billion in 2012 , and is expected to grow to $6.5 billion by 2017.
With the robot’s increased visibility, physical appearance – known as ornamental design to patent geeks – plays an increasingly significant role in determining the overall success or failure of robotics products in the marketplace.
Design patents (or design registrations as they are known in many parts of the world) protect how something “looks.” In the United States, by statute, that “something” must be an “article of manufacture.” An article of manufacture is a useful, manufactured (as opposed to natural) good.
Design-patent protection may apply to parts and accessories of a product and the overall appearance of the whole product; it is not just for consumer products. Although not as visible to lay consumers as compared to vacuum-cleaner robots, industrial robots may also possess unique ornamental features that increase their appeal and distinguish them from other similar robots on the market.
Design patents are enforced more like trademarks. The test for design-patent infringement centers on whether an ordinary observer, familiar with the prior art, would be deceived into believing the design protected by the patent is substantially the same as the design of the product accused of infringement. Damages for infringement can be substantial, depending on the articles involved. According to statute, design patent owners may receive damages equal to the total profits of the infringing product. Practically speaking, however, the vast majority of infringement situations are resolved without litigation. Often, the mere existence of design patents encourages competitors to think twice before copying or closely mimicking patented designs.