New Developments in the U.S. for Design Protection of Automotive Parts

On Tuesday, May 6, Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Deputy Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Margaret J.A. Peterlin met with executives from the automotive industry to kick off a listening tour to seek the perspectives of parties concerned with issues related to protecting the designs of automobiles.

The May 6 meeting was held at Ford Motor Company’s Dearborn, Mich. design center and included representatives from Ford, Chrysler, General Motors and the Auto Alliance. Future meetings will be scheduled to provide other stakeholders—including insurance companies, independent parts manufacturers and consumer groups—with opportunities to provide their views on these issues.

The listening tour will give us the opportunity to hear first-hand the concerns of those who have a stake in the intellectual property laws surrounding automotive designs.

In the United States, the ornamental appearance of vehicle exteriors can be protected by design patents. The automotive industry invests millions of dollars creating unique and distinctive designs for motor vehicles, which can easily be copied. Intellectual property protection is considered an extremely important tool to ensure automakers see a return on their investment.

This is a critical time for the automotive industry because the protection of automotive designs is being examined more closely by lawmakers. While the automotive industry is interested in strong intellectual property protection for their creative efforts, other industry and consumer groups argue that intellectual property protection of automotive designs in so far as it applies to spare parts is contrary to the public interest. Insurance companies, consumer groups and independent spare parts producers argue that the public interest is best served by eliminating design patent protection of spare parts so as to limit costs associated with the repair of damaged vehicles.

Legislation has been introduced that would amend title 35 of the United States Code to create an exception from infringement for certain component parts used to repair another article. Although this legislation is not limited to repair of vehicles, and would apply equally to other consumer products such as coffee makers, drill bits for drills, and other machine parts, this legislation would make design patents on parts of a vehicle significantly less valuable.

In the European Union, some countries (Belgium, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxemburg, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, United Kingdom) allow for repair of automobiles without regard to any intellectual property protection of an automobile design, while other countries (Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Sweden) have design protection for automobile designs, including spare parts.

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