Sarah Burstein


It is often said that the standards for patent protection are higher than the standards for copyright protection. Specifically, commentators assert that the copyright requirement of originality is easier to satisfy than the patent requirements of novelty and nonobviousness. And yet, the USPTO regularly grants patents for designs that fall below the low standard of copyright originality set by the Supreme Court in Feist v. Rural. Some may suggest that the existence of these “sub-Feist” design patents is a result of the USPTO abandoning its duty to scrutinize design patent applications. Or they may suggest that it is a result of the Federal Circuit making it more difficult to invalidate designs as anticipated or obvious. This Article argues that sub-Feist designs exist because the standard for “originality” (at least, in the sense of “minimal creativity”) is not really “lower” than novelty or nonobviousness—it’s just different. This has implications for how we think about the law and theory of copyright and patents as well as specific implications for design patent law and practice. Importantly, this suggests that we should take the word “original”—which is also an explicit statutory requirement for design patents—seriously. We should not assume that a design that qualifies, under the Patent Act, as “novel” and “nonobvious” is also “original” under the Feist standard. And if, as the Supreme Court has held, the Feist originality standard is a requirement of the Progress Clause, we should not let applicants use design patents to evade that requirement.

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