U.S. design patents and their international counterparts (generally termed “industrial designs”) protect the ornamental appearance of an article of manufacture. Design protection has been the subject of increased attention and activity for many clients in industries ranging from cell phones to shoes. However, up until now, pursuing protection for designs required separate filings in many different countries, often at significant expense. The Hague Agreement Concerning International Registration of Industrial Designs (“Hague Agreement”) allows a single international application for a design to be used for all signatory countries, similar in some ways to the existing Patent Convention Treaty (“PCT”) for utility patents and the Madrid Protocol for trademark applications. This harmonization and single application promises many potential savings for applicants who apply for designs in many countries, but substantial procedural questions about how this would work in practice remain, in part because of the many differences between U.S. design patent practice and industrial design practice in other countries.

On Nov. 29, 2013, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) published proposed rules changes to implement the Hague Agreement. The enabling legislation for this treaty was the Patent Law Treaties Implementation Act of 2012, which was enacted as Public Law 112-211 on December 18, 2012. The proposed rules include changes to 37 CFR parts 1, 3, 5 and 11.

Eight major changes in the rules have been made:

(1) The formal requirements for an international application have been standardized. These include (a) a formal request for international registration; (b) data identifying the Applicant; (c) copies of a reproduction of the industrial design (or multiple designs); (d) an indication of the product(s) that constitute the industrial design or in relation to which the design will be used (the Hague Agreement specifically allows for a two-dimensional design to be filed with a specimen of the design and an indication of the product or products for which the industrial design is to be used); (e) an indication of the designated states where the application will be pursued; and (f) the required fees.

The international application must comply with the formal specification and claiming requirements for a U.S. design patent. This will require applicants in countries that would not ordinarily require claims or detailed specifications to include these elements in their international applications, if they intend to pursue their applications in the U.S.

The Hague Agreement rules allow up to 100 designs to be filed in a single application.  Foreign applicants filing multiple designs in a single application will have their applications accepted for U.S. examination based on their international application, provided all other formal filing requirements are met. However, U.S. rules expressly allow for the prosecution of only a single design. Therefore, applicants with multiple designs in the same application should expect that U.S. design patent examiners will restrict their application to a single design, requiring subsequent filing of divisional applications if additional designs are to be protected. Nevertheless, in commercial situations this may still be prove useful, as divisional applications need not be filed or prosecuted immediately, allowing costs to be deferred.

(2) The USPTO has been established as a receiving office for international design applications. U.S.-originated applications will still undergo a national security review before being transmitted internationally. However, outside nuclear- and defense-related industries, this review should generally be a pure formality. Similar to the existing PCT process, the USPTO will only receive applications from a person who is a national of the U.S. or who is domiciled or has a place of business in the U.S. Applicants without a connection to the U.S. will need to file their international application elsewhere, either in their home countries or directly with the World Intellectual Property Organization. This is different from conventional U.S. design patent applications, which have no such restriction as to the location of the applicant.

(3) A right of priority based on international design applications has been provided. Similar to the PCT process, this includes a right to claim, through the international design application and a right of priority to an earlier foreign application in another country. While not expressly provided for in the treaty, the new rules appear to provide for an international applicant to claim priority in a U.S. national application to an earlier pending U.S. application through their international filing.

(4) International design applications filed in other signatory countries are treated as having the same effect from their filing date as a national design application filed in the U.S. However, an international application designating the U.S. must still (a) include a claim, (b) identify the inventor, and (c) include an inventor’s oath or declaration.

The requirement to properly identify the “inventor” of the design (termed the “creator” in the Hague Agreement) remains a key requirement in the U.S. for patentability. U.S. design patents, like U.S. utility patents, are potentially invalid if the correct inventor is not named. Applicants from countries where the requirements, particularly with respect to employee inventors, are less strict, should probably perform a little extra diligence on the “inventor” issue if they plan to file in the U.S.

The formal requirements on drawings in the U.S. are stricter than in many countries --  drawing sets that would be acceptable in other countries are often inadequate in the U.S. For example, one problem we see in U.S. applications based on earlier foreign priority applications is receiving an application where the design is not sufficiently specified, e.g., by not having a sufficient number of views. If something required is missing, adding it later often causes a loss of the original priority date, potentially preventing patenting. Designs filed based on photographs, a common practice in some jurisdictions, while technically allowed in the U.S., are often very difficult to prosecute successfully at the USPTO. Given that these requirements tend to be particular to the U.S., they represent a potential trap for unwary foreign applicants seeking to designate the U.S. in their international design application. Applicants who are intending to prosecute their applications in the U.S. should ensure their original application meets U.S. design patent drawing requirements, to prevent any possible problem with “new matter” needing to be added to the original drawings to satisfy U.S. requirements.

(5) Provisional rights for international design applications have been provided. Given that international design applications will publish, they will be accorded provisional rights damages related to infringement that occurs prior to issuance, but after publication, in a manner similar to the existing practice for utility patents.

(6) The patent term for design patents issuing from both international design applications and regular U.S. design patent applications has been extended by one year, to 15 years from the date of issuance.

(7) Rules for examination in the USPTO of international applications designating the U.S. have been provided. Substantive examination will remain similar to the existing rules for examination for design patents.

(8) Procedures for excusing missing various time limits have been provided. Generally, these require a showing of unintentional delay, similar to existing U.S. patent practice.

Other procedural and formal changes to harmonize current practice with the Hague Agreement have also been made. For example, international design applications will now publish. Currently, most pending U.S. design patent application files are secret, unless they have issued as a design patent, or claim priority to an earlier published file. The rules have been altered so that design application files resulting from published international applications will now be public.

The draft rules have been published for public comment on or before January 28, 2014. The USPTO will receive and consider any public comments made before the deadline, and then issue final rules. Clients who actively protect designs in multiple jurisdictions will want to consider how the rules can be used to streamline their filing and prosecution strategies in the future.