Everyone has experienced an auto accident of some form, be it a fender-bender or a more severe impact. While more forceful impacts can damage structural and/or functional components of a vehicle, even low-speed impacts can cause cosmetic damage that can be costly to replace.
So the next time you find yourself in a body shop pondering the cost of replacing cosmetic auto parts, consider this: many automobile body parts are patented. Companies in the auto industry have begun procuring design patents on the ornamental design of certain auto parts, including fenders, grilles, and quarter panels. This has led to some recent debate, since these design patents allow the manufacturers control over the original part, as well as replacement parts having the same patented design.
Recently, the insurance industry and consumer groups have begun lobbying Congress regarding the cost of auto repairs as a result of these design patents. Yesterday, the House of Representatives held a hearing on the bill H.R. 3059, the “Access to Repair Parts Act,” which would carve out an exception to design infringement for parts that constitute a component part of another article of manufacture and whose sole purpose is to repair the article of manufacture [automobile] and restore its original appearance.
Interestingly, this would not be such a hot topic of debate were it not for the power of design patents. In fact, one design patent attorney testifying against the bill claims that the bill’s proponents lost a design patent infringement lawsuit, and given that they can no longer make, use, sell, or import their knock-offs, they are now trying to carve out a legislative exception through public policy. Indeed, though proponents of the bill argue that such design patents hinder competition that would otherwise drive down the cost of replacement parts, they forget one important thing…design patents are allowed the benefit of exclusivity for the term of 14 years. In attempting to carve out an exception for replacement auto parts, these parties are implicitly acknowledging the value of design patents and the impact they can have.