How would apple's design patent for the shape of the iphone could have been non-obvious as a design patent? please don't jump right away..

The iphone was innovative in most respects when launched, I leave to others to argue how much innovative but I'd say it was very innovative when launched. But, in design patenting the shape - this is a different and separate discussion to my initial view.

It may seem to me, that the shape is obvious given the operation of the device, which I will explain in a minute, and a patent professional told me that visual features that have a utilitarian function tend to step outside the territory of what can be part of a design patent (in slightly different words, this is just my superficial summary or rewording).

Why may it seem the design is not non-obvious? because if you have a touch screen instead of a keypad, obviously (I) the consumer would prefer the screen to be as large as possible within the front of the device, (II) obviously that they'd prefer the device will have minimal edges to the sides of the screen (we like every device as small as it can be).

Furthermore, (III), a button for controlling the device would somewhat obviously be outside the screen, and either above, beyond, or to the sides of it, and (IV) obviously, it's easiest to press it with the hand holding the device when it's at the bottom otherwise you hide the screen to yourself while pressing it. Maybe the last claim that it's obvious the button would be at the bottom and not elsewhere is the weakest in this line of argument, as it assumes some thought taken towards consumer convenience - yet I'm not sure that design patents need to pass any threshold for being not obvious to those skilled in the art of design (let's call this hypothesis hypothesis H if anyone relates to it), and its location is very much entirely functional, not ornamental.

I'm not relating to the rounded corners aspect of the iphone design patent, because that is less key to my question or just heavily discussed.

As a final comment to this question, I have a hard time seeing how this patent, in each of its features more or less enumerated above, or in whole, can be said to be an ornamental design rather than being a quite very functional design.

1 Answer 1


Obviousness of a design is judged in comparison to existing designs that are located in a search, not by the type of logic you are using. You are using arguments about functionality (users would want a large button) to address ornamentation. A single centered circular button doesn't look like an array of tiny buttons. A portable computing device could be designed either way and could function either way.

It is true that features dictated by functionality are subtracted out in the analysis of design. To be functional a hammer probably needs a handle and a flat face but the shape of both can be arbitrary. Features that are desirable (thinness) are not required for functionality. Big faced watches are popular as a design choice, not as a readability aid even though it may be easier to read. There have been many functional watches with tiny faces.

  • Thanks George, I didn't have this perspective with me before, I have to let it sink some more. So is it sort of correct to believe that designs that are quite entirely or totally dictated by underlying novel technology inventions, such as the iphone at the time, can still have their visual design which is not unique at all given the technologies enabling it, be a design patent? wouldn't that mean that when you invent a new technology you exclude others from practicing it by means of a design patent, in actuality?
    – matanox
    Dec 18, 2013 at 9:44
  • Lots of things including the iPod go in your pocket but do not look like an iPhone. There currently exist tons of smartphones that do not have the shape of an original iphone including current iPhones. Yes, this is all trivial. That is the nature of ornamentation.
    – George White
    Dec 18, 2013 at 18:11
  • If the search turned up Palm pilot, black berry, game boy and iPods, I think the iphone would be seen as new and not obvious in comparison. Did the functionality, new or not, dictate the radius of the corners or the edges? The ratio of hight to width to depth? The no more than one visible button? Most functional elements can take on more than a single ornamentation. As long as a functional part can look more than one way, the look is a design, ornamentation, choice.
    – George White
    Dec 18, 2013 at 18:17

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