China Design Patents

We have written a number of times about the need to register intellectual property in China with the appropriate authorities. And we usually put particular emphasis on registering trademarks in China, because doing so is an easy, obvious, and relatively economical first step in IP protection. But for those selling or manufacturing products in China, the analysis should not end there.

A design patent in China (generally analogous to a design patent in the U.S. or a Community design in the EU) covers novel product designs that (1) incorporate shapes, patterns, and/or colors, (2) are rich in aesthetic appeal, and (3) are fit for industrial application. It does not take much for a design to meet this standard. China does not even conduct a substantive examination of design patent applications. Such examinations only occur if a third party challenges a patent’s validity after registration. A design patent applicant need only submit an application to SIPO that satisfies the procedural requirements, particularly with respect to proper formatting of documents and drawings.

Does this mean many of the design patents in China are slight modifications (read: ripoffs) of existing product designs? Of course. But this cuts both ways. A foreign company deciding to enter the Chinese market would not be able to register a design patent for its own product that has already been on the market for five years, but it could add a twist (“Chinese characteristics,” if you must) and thereby make the design patentable. Since 2009, the rule in China for patents has been absolute novelty – that is, disclosure anywhere in the world will negate novelty and make a design unpatentable. Before 2009, the rule was novelty in China.

A registered design patent has serious value: its owner can sue for design infringement, and, perhaps more importantly, its owner can also register the patent with Chinese Customs and have counterfeit or copycat products seized at the border. Even if a company does not think its design is novel enough to be patented, there is a first mover advantage to filing, in that design patents are valid until successfully challenged by a third party.

If you make an arguably generic product, would you rather hold a presumptively enforceable design patent on that product, or allow one of your competitors to do so? Bamboo mat manufacturers found out the answer to this the hard way.

The international IP lawyers at my law firm have consistently been able to secure license payments from Chinese manufacturers that were infringing on our clients’ design patents. We have done this by writing cease and desist letters and then instituting negotiations. These manufacturers chose to pay a licensing fee rather than contest the validity of the patent.

If you are selling your product in China or having your product manufactured there, you should consider applying for a China design patent.