Information: Product Designs

A brief summary of the relevant forms of protection currently available in the UK for designs for three-dimensional products.

AUTOMATIC SYSTEMS

Provided they are original (i.e. not copied from anywhere else), there will be copyright in the drawings from which a product is made. No action is necessary to establish, secure or maintain copyright in this country, although it is advisable to mark the drawing with the standard copyright notice: © + the name of the copyright owner + the year of creation. No cost is involved.

Copyright protection in a drawing lasts for the lifetime of its creator + a further 70 years.

The copyright in the drawings theoretically extends to a three-dimensional version of the design. However, under the current UK law (the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act) a product generally ceases to have copyright protection unless it can qualify as an artistic work under the terms of the Act.

In place of copyright, most products are protected by design right. This works in much the same way as copyright: protection is automatic, no action is required to establish secure or maintain it. However, there are some differences: a drawing is not necessary – design right can arise in a model or prototype, for example – and design right lasts only for 10 years from first marketing of the product. No cost is involved.

In addition to the statutory forms of protection set out above, product designs are potentially covered also by the “passing off” area of the common law (which has been shown by decisions of the courts to be a strong form of protection in cases where a reputation has been clearly established).

REGISTRATION SYSTEMS

As well as the automatic forms of protection, there is also the registered designs system, which provides extra protection for the appearance of new products (with some exceptions). Protection lasts for a maximum of 25 years.

As the name implies, action is required to register a design; this must be started before the design is made generally available (e.g. through publicity, exposure in an exhibition or putting on the market). There is a cost involved.

Further information and forms are available at www.ipo.gov.uk or contact the Intellectual Property Office on 0300 300 2000 or by e-mail at information@ipo.gov.uk.

For designs which break totally new ground, the patent system may apply. Intended to protect inventions, patents require demonstration of a high degree of novelty and a genuine inventive step. Protection lasts for a maximum of 20 years.

Application for a patent must be started before information about the invention is made generally available (e.g. through publicity, exposure in an exhibition or putting on the market).

There is a substantial cost involved and the services of a patent agent are essential. Further information is available at www.ipo.gov.uk or from the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys at www.cipa.org.uk.

Trade Marks may also be relevant where the shape of the goods or their packaging is involved. Further information may be obtained from the Intellectual Property Office at www.ipo.gov.uk or to the Chartered Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys at www.itma.org.uk or to the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys at www.cipa.org.uk.

GENERAL

Since this is a complex and specialised area of the law, anyone intending to go into business involving exploitation of their own, or other people’s work is strongly advised to take expert legal guidance to establish the position applying to their particular circumstances.

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