Design Patent Saves Ukulele Company

Do you have an idea that will improve upon an already existing invention?  How about an improvement upon the design of a musical instrument?

In the 1920’s,  Hawaiian music and the ukulele were very popular in the United States.  Small, portable, and inexpensive, the ukulele opened the door for regular middle class Americans to learn to play music at home.  In the early 1900s, a young Hawaiian man named Samuel Kaiali’ili’i Kamaka apprenticed under Manuel Nunes, one of the original ukulele makers from Portugal. 

By 1916, the fledgling luthier had founded the Kamaka Ukulele Company.  The Hawaiian ukulele had a curvy, figure-8 shape like its predecessor, the Portuguese machete de braga.  Kamaka soon developed a new shape for the ubiquitous ukulele and people couldn’t help but fall in love with it.  He modified the figure-8 design to an oval, creating a ukulele with a fuller, warmer, more resonant sound.  It became easier to manufacture, too: the sides no longer had to be bent.  People began to notice that the oval-shaped instrument looked a little like a pineapple, and when it was painted to look like one, well, the rest was history.

At the time, because of the ukulele’s popularity, ukulele manufacturers began popping up all over, both in Hawaii and on the mainland.  Competition was stiff and many small ukulele makers went out of business.  Wisely, Kamaka filed for a design patent for his pineapple ukulele.  Filing for a design patent is recommended when someone comes up with a new, original, and ornamental design for a manufactured item, and seeks to prevent the new design from being implemented by others. 

Once the patent is granted, it permits the patent holder to exclude others from making, using, or selling the design for 14 years.  Kamaka filed for his pineapple ukulele design patent on September 28, 1927, and was awarded the design patent on January 3, 1928.  After that, he was able to prevent anyone else from making, using or selling the pineapple ukulele — right up until January 3, 1940 — which was more than enough time to ensure the company’s success. 

By the late 1930s, Kamaka was the only Hawaiian ukulele maker still in business.  And it was all due to the little “Pineapple Uke” and its unique patented design.  Almost 100 years later, Kamaka Hawaii, Inc., is not only still around, it is the leading manufacturer of quality ukuleles in the world.

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