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Apple successfully patents rounded rectangle iPad design, may not be useful in court

The US Patent and Trademark Office has granted Apple a design patent for its first-gen iPad, particularly the rectangular design with rounded corners. The more important question is whether Apple will use this patent to sue other manufacturers that market tablets with rounded corners.
November 8, 2012

Apple has done it again. While we earlier wrote how Apple’s competitors complained about patent litigation being based on how a company could monopolize “rectangles with rounded corners,” the Cupertino company has apparently been granted a design patent for the original iPad’s design, which prominently features rounded corners.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted Apple a design patent for the original iPad. Recall that Apple released the first-gen iPad in January 2010. The company applied to patent its physical design by November that year. Design Patent D670,286 is for a “portable display device” which highlights the following features: a rectangular design with rounded corners, a round button at the bottom and a small camera device at the middle of the upper part. Some parts of the illustration are not included in the patent, though, such as the ports, speaker grilles and volume buttons.

Being a design patent, though, this has some limitations, particularly that it applies only to the form of the object in question, and not any functionality. It is ornamental, and not technical, in nature.

Now the main issue here is whether Apple can use this new design patent against other device manufacturers potentially infringing on their intellectual property. While the short answer is “it depends,” the better explanation would be that it’s not likely. Experts say that this does not necessarily give Apple undue advantage, since you will need to have an exact copy of the form in order to infringe on the design patent. “This design patent gives Apple no new advantage, because no one is out there trying to market an iPad lookalike,” says law professor Lea Shaver in an interview with Wired.

In the August 2012 Apple vs. Samsung court decision that favored Apple, the jury deemed that Samsung infringed on several of Apple’s design and technology patents in the iPhone. This recently-approved patent is more specific as to the exact appearance of Apple’s tablet, and the patent application actually included references to prior design specifications that Samsung referred to as “prior art” in its argument.

We do know, though, how Apple can be overly protective of its intellectual property, and how the company would go to lengths just to make sure other brands and manufacturers don’t copy their designs. Will Apple go after other companies that market devices designed as rectangles with rounded corners? They have done so before, and they probably will do so again.