Utility Patent vs Design Patent: What’s the Difference?

When it comes to protecting your innovative ideas, patents are an essential tool. But not all patents are created equal. If you’re navigating the world of intellectual property, you might have encountered the terms “utility patent” and “design patent” – each one serves a unique purpose. 

Unlike utility patents, which protect novel ideas or inventions, design patents are specifically geared towards safeguarding fresh designs of products that already exist. This insightful comparison empowers inventors to make informed decisions about the most suitable patent type for their creations.

Understanding Design Patents and Utility Patents

Understanding the differences between design patents and utility patents is essential for innovators seeking to strategically protect their intellectual property in a dynamic and competitive landscape.

Utility Patents: Protecting Functionality and Innovation

Utility patents, often referred to as “patents for invention,” are designed to safeguard the functionality, purpose, and unique features of a new and useful invention. These patents grant exclusive rights to the inventor for a specified period, usually 20 years from the filing date.

Utility patents cover the way an invention works, its specific components, and how they interact to achieve a certain function. They’re commonly sought for complex innovations, such as new machines, processes, chemicals, and even software algorithms. 

Utility patents provide a broad scope of protection, preventing others from making, using, selling, or importing the patented invention without the patent holder’s consent.

Design Patents: Preserving Aesthetics and Ornamental Designs

Design patents safeguard the ornamental and aesthetic features of an invention. They’re specifically meant to protect the visual appearance, shape, configuration, and surface ornamentation of an object.

Design patents ensure that others can’t create, use, or sell a product that bears a similar visual appearance to the patented design. These patents are particularly relevant in industries where aesthetics play a significant role, such as fashion, consumer electronics, and automotive design.

Cost Differences Between Design Patents and Utility Patents

The cost differences between design patents and utility patents can vary significantly. Here’s a breakdown of the typical costs associated with each type of patent:

Design Patents

  • Filing Fee: The filing fee for a design patent is generally more affordable, often around $100 to $200, depending on the jurisdiction.
  • Attorney Fees: While hiring an attorney is not mandatory, it’s advisable to seek professional guidance. Attorney fees for design patents might range from a few hundred to a couple of thousand dollars, depending on complexity and attorney rates.
  • Maintenance Fees: Design patents typically don’t require maintenance fees after issuance, making them cost-effective over time.

Utility Patents

  • Filing Fee: Filing a utility patent comes with a higher fee compared to design patents. The filing fee can range from around $300 to $700, depending on whether you qualify for any discounts (e.g., small entity status).
  • Attorney Fees: Due to the complexity of utility patents, attorney fees can be more substantial, typically ranging from a few thousand to several thousand dollars.
  • Maintenance Fees: Utility patents require maintenance fees to keep them in force. These fees increase over time, with payments due at specified intervals throughout the patient’s life (e.g., 3.5 years, 7.5 years, and 11.5 years after issuance).

Term Differences Between Utility Patent and Design Patent

The term of a utility patent and a design patent varies in duration. A utility patent typically lasts for 20 years from the filing date, granting exclusivity to the inventor for the invention’s functionality. 

On the other hand, a design patent has a shorter term of 15 years from the date of the grant, safeguarding the unique visual design of a product. This distinction in patent terms reflects the divergent aspects they protect – functionality for utility patents and aesthetics for design patents.

How to Choose Between Design and Utility Patents

Choosing between a utility patent and a design patent depends on the nature of your invention and what aspects you wish to protect. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you make an informed decision:

  1. Understand Your Invention: First, thoroughly comprehend the unique features of your invention. Is it primarily about how it works and its functionality, or is its appearance a significant distinguishing factor?
  2. Consider Functionality: If your invention’s value lies in how it functions, a utility patent might be the way to go. This type of patent protects the practical aspects and operational characteristics of your invention.
  3. Evaluate Aesthetics: On the other hand, if your invention’s visual design sets it apart, a design patent could be more suitable. Design patents safeguard the ornamental and visual aspects of a product.
  4. Assess Longevity: Remember that utility patents generally have longer terms (around 20 years) compared to design patents (about 15 years). Consider how long you want to protect your invention.
  5. Analyze Industry Trends: Look into your industry and market. Are competitors likely to imitate your invention’s appearance? If so, a design patent might be necessary to prevent copycats.
  6. Seek Professional Advice: Consult with a patent attorney or intellectual property expert. They can provide valuable insights based on your invention’s specifics and the level of protection you need.
  7. Combine Protection: In some cases, you might need both types of patents. If your invention has both unique functionality and a distinctive appearance, consider pursuing both utility and design patents.
  8. Review Costs: Keep in mind that design patents are mostly more affordable to file than utility patents. Consider your budget when making a decision.
  9. Future Expansion: Think about whether you plan to introduce variations or improvements to your invention in the future. Utility patents might offer more flexibility in this regard.


This section answers frequently asked questions about utility patents. Design Patent vs. Utility Patent

What do utility patents cover?

Utility patents cover the functional aspects and innovative features of inventions, such as unique processes, machines, compositions of matter, or articles of manufacture.

Should I File for a Utility or Design Patent?

Choose a design patent to protect your product’s unique appearance from potential imitators, common in items like smartphones and shoes. Opt for a utility patent to secure how your product functions, covering internal mechanisms and usage. For comprehensive protection of both aesthetics and functionality, pursuing both design and utility patents is recommended. LegalZoom can provide assistance in these matters.

Can trademarks be filed online?

Yes, many trademark offices offer online filing options for convenience and efficiency.

What do design patents protect?

How do I choose the right patent office for my application? Select the patent office(s) based on the countries where you intend to seek protection. National patent offices or international systems like the PCT can be decided accordingly.

How does the claim scope impact patent infringement cases? 

The claim scope defines what actions or products may infringe on the patent. In infringement cases, the accused product is compared to the language in the patent claims.

Josh Fechter
Josh is the founder of The Product Company.