2009 looked great for firm’s design clients

By Melissa Birks

The patent team at Banner & Witcoff ensures that nobody can steal the designs you see — of televisions, computer mice, even soda cans.

In essence, they protect the way “things” look. And they protect the looks of more “things” than any other law firm in the nation.

For the seventh consecutive year, Banner & Witcoff procured the most U.S. design patents issued in a calendar year. In 2009, the national intellectual property firm with about 90 attorneys in Chicago, Washington DC, Boston, and Portland, Ore. procured 890 design patents; the firm ranked number two procured 309.

“I think we represent a lot of design-driven clients. Where some other law firms might represent one, we tend to represent many,” said Rob Katz, principal shareholder at Banner & Witcoff in Chicago.

Banner & Witcoff’s clients include Microsoft, NIKE, Nokia, PepsiCo, and Toshiba, all companies that collectively accounted for most of the firm’s 2009 design patents.

Design patents protect the appearance of an invention, as opposed to utility patents, which are concerned with an invention’s usefulness and new-ness. Design patents have a shorter life span, 14 months, than that of utility patents, which protect inventions for 20 years. And design patents typically don’t take as long to get issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office: 14 to 15 months on average as opposed to nearly 34 months for utility patents.

“If you create a new coffee cup, and it’s got a unique handle and or a new shape of the cylinder, you can get protection so long as it’s new and non-obvious,” Katz said.

Banner & Witcoff, for example, protects the look of Microsoft’s computer mice and the look of PepsiCo’s packaging.

“If you walk in the mall, you see it in store windows. You see people wearing it and carrying it. That’s part of the fun of what we do. You can say, ‘We worked on that!’” Katz said.

As for 2010, it’s difficult to say how the year will end, Katz said.

“It’s always hard to tell. A lot depends on what new stuff comes in the que, how fast the patent office acts on pendent cases … It wouldn’t surprise me if we had approximately the same number.”

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