Design Patent Protection for User Interfaces

June 27, 2017

From patient monitoring devices to advanced diagnostic equipment, the medical technology industry is constantly developing innovative designs for graphical user interfaces (GUIs) to provide the finest user experience. GUIs have become an essential component in medical devices, and are valuable in ensuring safe and effective usage of the devices. The benefits of GUIs are not only limited to medical devices. GUIs also play an important role in healthcare operations management, such as in a hospital command center, to streamline patient care and effectively manage patient flow.
GUI designs can be actively protected by design patents. A number of technology companies (such as Microsoft, Samsung, Apple, Google, Nest Labs, etc.) have been leveraging design filings to seek protection for GUIs. Below is a recent example of user interface design patent D687,046 issued to Nest Labs for their thermostat interface:

However, only a limited number of medical tech companies have sought design protection. Given the importance of GUIs in healthcare and their sophisticated design considerations, design patents should be used as an active way of protecting the user interface designs for medical devices and healthcare management. An example of design patent D697,073 issued to Siemens AG for a user interface on a medical device is shown below:

As to what is protectable, various features of a GUI can be protected in one or more design filings. These may include an overall layout of the GUI. Further, appearance and specific positioning of individual elements within the layout can be protected. For example, in a healthcare environment, effective alarm indications are crucial to patient monitoring devices. A design filing can cover the visual aspect of an alarm indication (e.g., shape and position) displayed on a monitoring device. Further, color in GUIs is protectable. Turning back to the alarm example, the color of the alarm displayed, in addition to the shape and position of the alarm, can be protected. It is also possible to cover different embodiments of the design in one application.
Further, icons, logos, fonts, and various display portions of a GUI can be covered through design filings. Finally, animation in GUIs can be covered by showing a sequence of transitional GUI images, such as a first image, second image, etc., which focus on the visual effect of the change in claimed elements, including changes in position and/or appearance, during the animation. Animation of icons, logos, and various display portions of a graphical user interface can also be covered.
Overall, design patents can be effectively used to cover static as well as dynamic impressions of a GUI. Protection of GUIs should not be limited to the software industry. Medical technology companies and GUI designers for healthcare (including healthcare app developers) should strongly consider protecting their interface designs through design patent filings to strengthen their intellectual property portfolio.

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