Elizabeth Oswecki
Production Management: Textiles ’05, Textile/Surface Design ’03

Elizabeth Oswecki vowed not to follow her parents into the law profession. But now, as a design patent examiner with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, VA, she deals with patent case law every day. And she enjoys it.

Oswecki was working for a small apparel company in New York when she learned that the patent office employs creatives like her to examine “design patents,” which focus strictly on an invention’s appearance—as opposed to “utility patents,” granted based on an invention’s function. There are almost 10 million utility patents in existence, compared with about 770,000 design patents.

After a rigorous interview in 2006—Oswecki sat in the center of a conference room ringed by ten supervisors—she became an assistant examiner. In 2011, following two official reviews, she became a primary design examiner with the authority to grant or deny patents without supervisor approval.

Oswecki has examined patent applications for footwear, holiday ornaments, apparel, safety equipment, and semiconductors. Design patent applications, she says, require presenting a clear set of drawings along with specifications that would allow the design to be re-created. Clarity is the first aspect she looks for, and it’s where her FIT training comes into play.

“I make sure all the details are there and precise,” she says. “I think, ‘What have they done incorrectly? What’s wrong here?’”

If the drawings and specifications meet those standards, she searches the patent office’s database, as well as the internet and international registries, for a prior design for the proposed invention. If an invention’s appear ance is unique and is not an obvious modification to a prior design, the patent will be granted. The process can take anywhere from a few hours to a week.

One day, she was shopping for groceries when she noticed a shampoo bottle whose design she had approved. “It’s very exciting, because you know the precise reasons why that bottle is special, and it feels good to know that you’ve helped that inventor protect their invention.” —Carol P. Bartold

Photo credit: Joe Carrotta, Photography ’16