Patents // Design

A patent, by definition is:

a government authority or licence conferring a right or title for a set period, especially the sole right to exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention.

A design by definition is:

purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.

Recent events over the past five years have brought the idea of taking ownership of different designs into perspective.  Can you actually own and place a copyright/patent on a design style or certain aesthetic?  Are all designs open to being patented by their creators and upheld by the laws of copyrights in court?  Should designers from this point on copyright and/or patent anything from a simple phone case all the way to a new skyscraper to protect themselves from someone attempting to steal their manifested identity?  These questions have actually been in the minds of a lot of people - particularly designers - for a long time, but recently have come to the forefront with Apple's patents surrounding its famed BCJ-designed stores.

Apple's Identity  

Most people will not deny the fact that Apple's branding and design are some of the strongest and prettiest around.  The company as a whole has created an identity that many associate themselves with not only as a way of working but as a general lifestyle.  With products ranging from cellphones to televisions, their vision for their appearance has always been clear, clean and sleek.  When BCJ won their initial round of stores, Apple had a clear design intent in mind and through countless hours of Steve Jobs' design workshops with the architects, the store was born.  In November of 2011, Apple was awarded a patent for the design of its store in the Upper West Side in NYC.  This meant that they owned the identity, aesthetic and design of this store. Architecture, seen as an ever-evolving precedent in itself suddenly saw a break in the action. Not only could no other designer create another store like this, but if it even remotely looked like the glass facade and roof that Apple said was only their's, the mammoth's lawyers would be in court the next morning.  How can a company claim a style or aesthetic as their own?  

Apple's store on the NYC's Upper West Side won its patent for design in November of 2011

Stepping away from the discussion of architecture, the battle between Apple and Samsung for the design of the 'S'-series of Samsung phones against the iPhone sparked a huge debate when Apple won a lawsuit that stated Samsung 'stole' a design for their phones.  The gargantuan multi-billion dollar lawsuit upheld that Apple owned a style and aesthetic?  The basis of the lawsuit spawned from similar-appearing UI's ended up resulting in both company's being caught red-handed in copyright-infringements.  The style of phone - a smartphone - has now been almost wholeheartedly claimed as Apple's.  Any other device must completely reinvent the wheel just to avoid going to court with a $2 billion price tag.  This is like Peter Eisenman claiming ownership of Deconstructivism and then suing every architect, artist and writer who did something in similar fashion, following a stylistic movement.  Where does the right of an owner start and stop in regards to a design, its appearance, functionality and creation?  The terms seem so loose that many of these cases that are now popping up could easily go one way or another, depending on how much your legal team is worth.  

Two of the phones in question during the trials between Apple and Samsung

Copyright vs. Patent

A real quick break before diving farther into this conversation:

  • A patent is a legally-granted right to be the sole owner of a process or design for a certain period of time.  This not only included 'expression' but also the processes of creation. After the period of time ends - if it isn't renewed - others are permitted to take part in creating their own versions.  
  • A copyright, on the other hand, is the sole ownership of a creative expression where nobody else is granted permissions to recreate or identically-interpret without the owner's consent. It doesn't focus so much on the creation of an entity but rather the presence.  A copyright doesn't end until 50 years after the death of its creator unless otherwise noted. 

Patenting Style

A style is simply defined as "a manner of doing something".  This is primarily linked to (in design terms - even more specifically in architectural terms) the aesthetics of an object; the way it appears and is 'branded' to the rest of the world.  To patent a style is like one company patenting Modernism, a movement which several million designers and other creative-types responded to.  It was a particular vernacular of a certain time period where ownership lay only with an individual entity and not an entire style.  Patenting a style is a disgusting use of monopolistic design prowess and legalities to "brand" oneself.  Any true designer would be open to interpretations of their creations, only those that are glutinously obsessive about themselves or afraid of being ousted support the sole ownership of an appearance, aesthetic or "style".  Starchitects such as Gehry, Hadid and Lebeskind have a very specific style, what if they were to patent their appearances.  A client would have one and only one person to to turn to if they needed a large curved museum or a building that resembled a crumpled up piece of paper. As a design community, there needs to be limits on what creators really own.  Sure, they can procure a patent for a specific detail, but patenting a design type proves no point other than a claim to something that never was fully the designer's to begin with.    

Patenting Process/Assembly

What is an understandable and realistic patent is the ability to place  one's seal on the processes of creation or assembly of something.  Let's say Company A makes a wall with new 4" studs that is completely unique in its assembly and performance, it may be permitted to place a patent on the design because it is completely new not only in (perhaps) its appearance, but more importantly its creation (process) and performance.  This, of course, will end in 'x' number of years allowing others to partake in creating their own versions (unless it is renewed...).  Car companies exemplify exactly what a patent in the design world should be like.  Many competing car brands have eerily similar appearances - or styles.  What sets the cars apart is their performance standards and the operations.  So while these competing car brands - many Hyundais have hinted at a Mercedes - may have similar styles, they end up being vastly different under the hood, where what really matters happens.  Patenting a process and/or assembly still runs along the lines of being monopolistic and overly self-indulgent, however it borders on intellectual property rights when it is a system of workings and not a style or appearance.  The amount of thought that is poured into a new system trumps that of an aesthetic, it takes much more uniqueness of thought to create a new process, implement and fall under performance statistics than it does to simply create under a style and appearance. Pastiche designs, as we all know from the numerous art and architectural movements over time, are a way of building upon what we already have.  Isn't imitation the greatest form of flattery?

At the end of the day, designers must remember that there is nothing without precedent. Creations never are born out of thin air, it takes iteration upon iteration to create a stratified style.  What's interesting about the Apple debate is their newly patented glass stair actually isn't their's.  BCJ implemented this stair in conjunction with Corning in an earlier project, the Rakow Library.  Steve Jobs enjoyed the style and decided to utilize it in his stores, later filing for patents to claim the glass stair for Apple's own when it wasn't even their's let alone Steve's own creation. As aforementioned, design is based off precedent.  Designers build upon what has already been done, interpreting outdated or invalid methods for better uses.  Reinventing the wheel every time would not only set society back but would also create an environment where ownership was so specific that monopolies would run rampant in literally every facet of life. Patenting isn't a bad thing when it comes to a new detail, structure or process of creation.  When a patent can become dangerous to design and ingenuity is when it seeks to protect the style or appearance of an entity.  Design isn't necessarily open source, but the ability to reinterpret and recreate is what keeps progression alive.            


VIA | Archdaily

VIA | Archdaily