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Summary:

Do you remember Apple’s rounded rectangles patent? Well, this week Motorola obtained a patent for eight-sided smartphones.

Droid Razr M, Motorola, Google, Android
photo: GigaOM

If you thought the era of silly shape patents was over, don’t hold your breath. Months after Apple used a patent for rounded rectangles to chase away iPad competitors, Motorola has received a patent for an eight-sided cellphone design.

The Patent Office approved the new “invention” this week and the news was first reported on Twitter by Professor Sarah Burstein:

Burstein, who is a design patent expert at the University of Oklahoma, explained that her “rounded octagon” comment was tongue-in-cheek but confirmed that the patent had been granted and that it covers the displayed shape of a smartphone.

She added that the scope of Motorola’s design patent is more narrow than Apple’s infamous rounded rectangles patent. Here is a picture from Apple’s patent:

Rounded rectangles screenshot

To successfully invoke its new patent against an infringer, Burstein said Motorola would have to show that a consumer would find the supposedly infringing product has the same design as Motorola’s design.

The “rounded octagon” patent is likely to add more grist for critics who question the wisdom of granting monopoly protection over basic shapes and concepts (14 years for design patents, 20 for regular ones). This year, a new law in the U.S. has made it easier to obtain design patents, which are cheaper and faster to get than regular patents. Meanwhile, companies like Apple continue to use a variety of other intellectual property measures like trademark, trade dress and copyright to wrap legal force fields around their products.

The new patent may provide new ammunition to Google, which owns Motorola, in its ceaseless rounds of patent litigation with Apple and other rivals in courtrooms around the world.

The patent can be seen at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Unfortunately, the USPTO’s website only permits images to be viewed with Internet Explorer, Netscape or Opera browsers. If you’re using another browser, here’s a PDF link.

  1. Ms. Applesoft Thursday, March 21, 2013

    Before you know it, Google will be getting sued by Apple (Ha, ha!)
    -Ms. Applesoft

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  2. Design patents are 14 years. Better research please.

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    1. thanks for flagging. I’ve tweaked the story to clarify it’s 14 years for design patents, 20 years for utility patents.

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  3. I still don’t understand the difference between a patent and a trademark. I wouldn’t have thought you could patent a shape, but perhaps you could trademark it. Can somebody please explain the difference to me?

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    1. That’s a great question. Intellectual property is traditionally broken down into three broad categories

      1)Patents to protect inventions (ie a mousetrap)

      2)Copyright to protect artistic and literary works (ie a movie)

      3) Trademarks to protect brands (the Coke logo)

      In many cases, the IP will overlap in the same invention — the iPad has patented technology and has a trademarked Apple logo.

      The issue of shapes is tricky. There is a species of trademark called “trade dress” that protects things like distinct bottle shapes — where the packaging is so tied to the product that its like a logo in its own right.

      Design patents are a weird corner of the patent world that protect the ornamental aspects of a functional product. Does this overlap with trade dress? I would argue yes but, at this point, we’re heading into the upper firmament of intellectual property concepts..

      In other words, it IS confusing.

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      1. [I understand if the moderator has to edit my comment]

        * Good, clear response to “Confused”. Thanks. That’s a good place for everyone’s common understanding to start.

        * At Motorola we engineers enjoy taking industrial design risks, of the type which would definitely show up in the design patent sphere. Some of them really pay off, such as the MicroTAC flip phones, StarTACs, and both the new and old RAZR’s. It’s gratifying to invest ourselves into forms and functions that our fellow consumers have chosen to make a part of their lives. Other design bets have been less popular, but have borne a similar level of “design pride”; such as the ROKR E8 with its morphing keypad and piezo haptics, or the KRAV ZN4 which had a transparent flip which functioned as its own touchscreen, or the BACKFLIP with its rear secondary touchpad, even the FLIPOUT which was a unique small square rotator smartphone. Since my oldest son had his ATRIX 2 stolen from the local high school last week, he’s been using a FLIPOUT, and we’ve been reminded of its design novelty that never seems to fully wear off.

        * The octagon design has been a good “workhorse” industrial design for us. Coupled with rugged materials, it conveys and delivers a strength and confidence in the product for people’s real life use. It debuted in our smartphones as the original PHOTON, and in our tablets as the XYBOARD’s. As users continue to respond to the octagon “design language”, we’ve continued to produce such models; about half of the active models on our web site reflect the “octagon” design language.

        * I’d make special mention, if I may, of the Motorola “ADMIRAL”. It has subtle but significant Art Deco styling aspects, most notablly in the grooved “celebration of the bezel” which seamlessly transitions into the terraced full QWERTY keyboard. Art Deco is an architectural and design style I’m particularly fond of.

        * Good ID (industrial design), which design patents help to make monetizable, may be one of our industry’s best ways to really consider you, the user. Shapes and weight and center off mass evoke physical sensations in the hand or pocket; textures and materials can figure into moods; and visual cues via form and color can blend into your situation, augment it, or stand out by contrast. The physical design also makes outward-facing statements from the user. Not every design bet by a smartphone company pays off, but you can be sure that for every unique, standout design, multiple people tried to mentally walk a mile or two in your shoes, to imagine a device whose physical attributes would be not only satisfying, but enjoyable to you.

        * “firmament” – good use of an ‘Old Testament’ word :)

        Dan W., Motorola

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  4. another reason to close the patent office and the people that work there

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    1. Samsung’s wet dream.

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  5. Copyright/Patent/Trademark law: soon to become the criminalization of creativity and freedom except by corporations. Don’t even get me started on corporate personhood and how corporations are trying to get themselves defined as people, and the rest of us defined as less than people. -_-

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