(written from a Production point of view)
Design patents are a type of patent issued under United States patent law. (Other jurisdictions have similar protections but they are called different things.) The patent is granted based on the unique appearance or concept of an item rather than its "usefulness". Design patents typically are sought for items where the appearance is as – or more – important than the underlying craftsmanship itself. So, things like jewelry, toys, furniture, car parts, etc. are frequently granted design patents.
Design patents have a life in the US of fourteen years from the date of issuance. Their main usefulness is as a supplement to copyright protections. Whereas someone claiming a copyright in a work can prevent actual copies being made, a design patent can more easily be used to prevent the unauthorized creation of similar items which are not actually copies. Neither protection is absolute, but some counsel believe that having both is important where even the hint of similar design is a threat to the value of the original design.
From 1978 through 1987, Paramount Pictures sought and obtained various design patents for Star Trek designs. There seem to have been no other filings after 1987, and Paramount's legal department instead probably feels comfortable with existing copyright protections.
In each instance of a design patent at least one "inventor" has to be listed. The inventor can never be the corporation, it has to be an individual or individuals. It is sometimes interesting to see who gets credit for what on the official documents.
The very first design patent issued on 25 November 1980 for Star Trek was for the duty uniform from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Filed for in April 1979, it depicts the "ornamental design for a costume, substantially as shown". It is colorless (US patents are in black and white), is missing the uniform patch (the subject of a separate patent), and shows the rank of captain. It also has some subtle differences from the actual costume: a collar layer is missing, the pants leg attaches to the shoe a little differently, and stitching is exaggerated for clarity. But none of that has any legal significance; "substantially as shown" is what they really meant.
It is amusing to note that in the required research performed by the Patent Office to see whether this design is truly original, they reference a Montgomery Ward catalog, evidently for children's footed pajamas.
This is the "perscan" device, described in a footnote in the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as a scanner-transceiver that monitored and transmitted a person's vital signs to sickbay at all times. This was called a "belt buckle" in the patent. It appears to be a highly accurate representation of the actual device used in the movie.
This is the duty uniform from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, or in patent-speak "the ornamental design of a costume". As with the uniform from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, this one appears to be Kirk's based on the pips on the sleeve. Although very accurate in some ways (it shows stitching not readily seen on-screen but present in the costume), some elements of the insignia are rather crudely drawn. Again, due to the "substantially similar" text this would not affect the enforceability of the patent.
This is the "new" Starfleet insignia used in Star Trek: The Motion Picture; the one used for purposes of the patent was the pin worn by Kirk on his Admiral's uniform. Because the claim was – as always – "substantially as shown", the fact that fabric patches were also used is irrelevant. The design was the design was the design; copy in any medium at your peril. For the "Other Publications" section (the prior art against which this is compared for originality) the patent examiner cited The Making of Star Trek.
This is the landing party jacket from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Clasps, pockets, and various ornamental areas can be seen in detail. It appears very close to the final design used in the film.
|D259889||Andrew G. Probert||7/14/1981|
This is the design of the Vulcan shuttle Surak from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It does not show the shuttle detached from the warp-capable "sled" (that's the next patent!), but does contain some general surface detail. Since it was not a real ship, it had to be called a "toy spaceship" for purposes of the patent application.
|D263727||Andrew G. Probert||4/6/1982|
This is the shuttle portion of the Surak from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was another "toy spaceship", and except for the bottom view is identical to the shuttle part of the Vulcan shuttle. It is odd that the examiner did not actually reference the prior-issued patent since they are so similar. It is also odd that Paramount would have gone to the trouble of breaking out the shuttle separately but not the warp-capable sled. Possibly there were plans to market it as a standard Starfleet shuttle.
|D259939||Richard M. Rubin||7/21/1981|
Designated a "toy weapon", this is the redesigned phaser for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Its control panel is a different configuration from any photos that exist, though - possibly an early design as it was filed in April of 1979. It also has a very definite clip for hooking onto a belt or belt loop. The clip may not have existed on all of the "hero" props, but at least one hero had a clip, as can be seen at racprops.com. The clip may have only been used when the phaser was to be attached to a costume.
|D260411||Richard M. Rubin||8/25/1981|
This one is a "toy communicator". One of only two wrist communicator types in Star Trek (the other being used in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), this is very similar to the final product used in Star Trek: The Motion Picture but for the application of signage. The patent pointed to a 1964 Dick Tracy comic strip as prior art for the design. (The patent examiner didn't actually read newspapers from sixteen years prior looking for similarity in design; he copied the reference from a 1968 patent he also used as a reference.)
|D260539||Richard M. Rubin||9/1/1981|
As the Patent Office does not recognize the term "tricorder", this is called a "toy console". This is the Star Trek: The Motion Picture redesign, and like the communicator did not have signage (other than the numbered keypad). It is very close to the final prop, except that the sensor units (shown in Figure 4) are nothing like the ones used in the film.
|D260789||Andrew G. Probert||9/15/1981|
This is the refit of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Despite the number of people who contributed to the overall design, only Andrew Probert is listed as the inventor. As prior art the examiner referenced a toy listing from 1976 of the original Enterprise. This patent relies heavily on the "substantially as shown" provision, as it is the same as the final model only in the gross details. For example, the warp engines are much more cylindrical (although only in some views) than in the ship as seen in the movie. The patent was filed in March 1979, at which point the art seems to have been in a state of flux.
|D263856||Andrew G. Probert||4/13/1982|
This is the Klingon Empire's K't'inga-class starship, although this name was not used in the actual filing and the design lacked virtually all of the surface detail that distinguished it from the D7 class. Nonetheless, this was applied for as part of the Star Trek: The Motion Picture group of design patents, again with only Andrew Probert listed as the inventor. This one barely made it out before Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan premiered two months later. Even though it is almost identical in every respect to the original series Klingon battle cruiser, the patent examiner did not reference any images of it in his or her review. Technically this could have presented someone with the ability to challenge the patent as having been improperly issued, but the question apparently never came up.
|D272839||Joseph R. Jennings and Michael Minor||2/28/1984|
This is the USS Reliant. The drawing is of similar quality to the Enterprise refit patent, inexplicably still including the same rounded nacelles. The prior art cited by the patent examiner for this one is interesting. Of course there is the prior Enterprise patent, a 1979 JC Penny Christmas catalog with a toy Enterprise, and – also from the Penny's catalog – the Millennium Falcon. (Lucasfilm has also patented a number of designs over time, including the X-wing, Yoda and C-3PO, but not the Millennium Falcon. One might wonder if it an application for such a patent was rejected for being too similar in overall design to the Reliant. There is also a potential timeliness issue related to filing after first use, but since the X-wing got one at D254080...)
|D275777||Kenneth R. Ralston||10/2/1984|
This is a "toy animal" to some, a Ceti eel to others. This "ornamental design for a toy animal" is the creature Khan put in Chekov's and Terrell's ears in Star Trek II. It looks very much like the puppet in the movie, and the patent shows nicely the rare underbelly of the creature. The patent examiner was really reaching for past art on this one; he cited a 1966 patent for a turtle-shaped bath sponge.
|D285467||William George and Phillip Norwood||9/2/1986|
This phaser design, used in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, was patented as well. The patent drawing is very close to the finished prop, more so than the Motion Picture phaser patent. The examiner did not reference the earlier phaser patent in their search, probably due to the radical design differences between the two.
This is the Klingon hand weapon from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Like the phaser from the film, this drawing is very much like the final prop used.
Issued the same day as the Klingon hand weapon is the combination of the hand weapon and a shoulder brace for it from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Like the hand version, this is classified as a "toy weapon".
The "toy communicator" from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The final communicator prop differs slightly from this patent. The final antenna grill doesn't have the bend in it like that shown in the design patent. There is also a sliding switch on the right side interrupting the midplate; it is unclear whether this feature made it into the hero version of the prop. Of interest is that the design patent for the communicator from Star Trek: The Motion Picture is cited as past art, despite there being virtually no design similarities between the two.
|D288945||Nilo Rodis-Jamero and David Carson||3/24/1987|
The USS Excelsior from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The art on this one is very close to the final model in most respects. Past art examined to see if this was an original design included the design patents for the Vulcan shuttle, the Enterprise refit, the Klingon ship, and the Reliant. Of interest is the fact that Nilo Rodis-Jamero was also listed as the inventor of the Klingon Bird-of-Prey patent (below) and the patent for Boba Fett's spaceship Slave One under design patent D268773.
Issued the same day as the patent for the USS Excelsior, this one is the Klingon Bird-of-Prey from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. It is very similar in all respects to the final model used for filming purposes.
|D307923||Andrew G. Probert||3/15/1990|
The first of three patents applied for on 23 September 1987 to be issued was the USS Enterprise-D. Probert's own prior patents for starships were cited as past references, as was the Reliant. This is very close in design to the final version, but as usual without insignia, signage, and the like.
|D309482||Richard M. Sternbach||12/10/1991|
The hypospray used during TNG, DS9, and VOY was the subject of this design patent. Other than color and signage it is very close to the prop originally used. This is the only design patent that was not expressly assigned to Paramount Pictures in the issued patent itself. That does not mean that Rick Sternbach owned it (it expired in 2005), as he could have assigned it through other means. But it is a curiosity.
|D322298||Richard M. Sternbach||12/10/1991|
Filed with the Patent Office just days before the premiere of TNG: "Encounter at Farpoint", it would be more than four years before it was approved and issued. This one is for the TNG version of the Type 1 Phaser: the "cricket" phaser. This design is quite close to the actual prop, including button placement. The patent issuance was something of a hollow victory for Paramount as it came out during the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when use of this type of phaser had long ago been abandoned by the production staff. This is the last known Star Trek patent to have been issued to date.
|D262037||Richard A. Foy||11/24/1981|
This is an ornamental design for a calligraphic font, first used in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. With minor alterations from time to time it has been used in productions, books, and advertising from 1979 until today.
|D277297||Joseph R. Jennings and Michael Minor||1/22/1985|
This is a "Container for Desk Top Materials Or Similar Article". That is how the US Patent Office refers to a photon torpedo casing. It may typically contain antimatter in the series, but it appears that Paramount may have intended at some point to market the item most clearly identified at the time with Spock's coffin as a container for pens and pencils.
The complete patents
United States patents are public information once issued; anyone can obtain a copy through a variety of means. One of the easiest is through the use of this site. Simply input the patent number above, remembering to use the "D" in front, and the patent will be viewable as a PDF file.
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