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New law strengthens patents on product designs

President Obama signed a bill that some worry could overwhelm the patent system even further.

Patent law has long protected companies from having their products' appearance copied, as we saw during this year's copyright battle between Apple and Samsung over the shapes of their smartphones and tablets. But protections for design patents grew stronger this month, thanks to a new law signed by President Barack Obama.

The Patent Law Treaties Implantation Act of 2012, as it is known, amends federal patent law to implement two 5-year-old treaties: the Patent Law Treaty and the Geneva Act of the Hague Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Industrial Designs. The point of the treaties was to make the process of applying for a patent consistent across member countries.

In particular, that means allowing inventors to file patents around the world using a single application. The bill will go into effect about a year from now. And it increases the term of design patents by one year, from 14 to 15.

GigaOm, which has a thorough summary of the new law and its implications, notes that the law will make it easier for U.S. companies to fight knockoffs of their products. At the same time, it could generate even more litigation for a patent system already strained by it.

The GigaOm report notes that design patents have been easier to come by lately than more traditional utility patents, which cover methods instead of visual appearance. It predicts a new wave of design patent applications from foreign companies looking to protect their intellectual property in ways the courts will support.