This is the spiritual successor to a story that appeared in OneZero in April 2019: “From Like Buttons to Message Bubbles: The UX Designs You Can’t Use”
You love thinking big. You love looking at other tech companies to see how they designed their products, or their navigation system, or that one animation transition you love. You aspire to design something like that. You keep bookmarks in your head: If you needed an expanding carousel for your entertainment app, you could take inspiration from Netflix.
Or maybe not. There are in fact some patterns you can’t use.
“W-what do you mean I can’t use?” you ask. “Like it doesn’t fit my situation? What — because I’m not at a tech company?” No, I mean like, you literally cannot use them without getting sued. Just as inventions have their own patents and rights, so do designs, and tech companies are good at protecting their work. Almost all parts of the Netflix carousel — the hover, the expansion — are patented work.
Now you’re thinking with clenched fists like John Locke from Lost: “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” Welp.
If design patents sound familiar, you may have read my article last year, “From Like Buttons to Message Bubbles: The UX Designs You Can’t Use.” I talked in detail about what design patents were, how long they last, what things you can and cannot patent, followed by several examples from tech companies. Just to recap, design patents last 15 years, cost a one-time fee of about $2,000-$3,000, they are all public material, and can be found conveniently on Google Patents. You can patent icons, static screens, animated interactions, and “ornamental” designs to existing functions. You cannot patent something purely for function.
Have you noticed that chat messaging apps that use bubbles all look a bit different? Perhaps that wasn’t “to be unique” but rather they (legally) had to. Companies can claim the visual shape of a message bubble to make them theirs, like Apple’s patent on their iMessage chat tails. But you cannot patent the function of being able to send messages.
I love looking at patents because they reveal a lot of potential work in progress…