Computer-generated icons are small pictograms representing various commands and/or applications in many electronic devices. For example, the icons may be virtual representations of various real objects such as a folder, or a recycling bin. Many electronic devices, such as portable media players or mobile phones, are heavily reliant on computer-generated icons to enable a user to navigate within the device. Additionally, icons may also be used to provide a user with a familiar "look and feel" across a number of devices by employing the same icons in the devices.

In Canada and the U.S., computer-generated icons on electronic devices may be protected by obtaining a Canadian industrial design registration and/or a U.S. design patent. This design protection is available in addition to protection offered by copyright and trade mark law.

Canada

In Canada, computer-generated icons are eligible for industrial design protection if they are embodied in a finished article and meet the usual requirement for design protection. In addition to being original, a design for an icon must meet the following requirements:

  1. The icon must be visible when the article is used for its intended purpose;
  2. The features of the icon must not be dictated solely by a utilitarian function of the article;  
  3. The title of the application must identify the finished article in which the icon is embodied; and,  
  4. The drawings or photographs must show the entirety of the finished article, which the icon embodies.

(CIPO Industrial Design Practice Notice (1999-12-15), online: http://www.cipo.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/cipointernet-internetopic.nsf/eng/wr00287.html

United States

In the U.S., the United States Trade Mark and Patent Office (USPTO) considers computer-generated icons as statutory subject matter eligible for design patent protection under 35 U.S.C. 171 if they are embodied in an article of manufacture (MPEP 1504.01(a) Computer-Generated Icons [Rg-5] – 1500 Design Patents). Therefore, a design patent may be obtained for an ornamental design for a computer-generated icon embodied in an article of manufacture if the design is novel and unobvious.

In summary, designs for icons embodied in an electronic display, are eligible for design protection in both Canada and the U.S. An electronic display is not necessarily limited to a computer display or a mobile phone display and may include displays in other devices. In addition, icons appearing in other finished articles such as automobile speedometers, washer/dryer displays, or remote controls can also be protected by industrial design registration or design patent.