Design rights: protecting your design idea

Have you ever noticed that all products – even very similar ones like bottles, smartphones, and jewellery – come in slightly different shapes and sizes? These subtle variations are of course intended to make sure a design is unique, but they can also make sure that this uniqueness is preserved legally within the United Kingdom. There are two main ways to do this: design right and design registration.

What’s the difference between design right and design registration?

UK design regulations and intellectual property rights are slightly different from those in the US or elsewhere in Europe. This is because all designs in the UK come with an automatic design right that protects all designs for 15 years after creation or 10 years after initial sale, depending on which happens sooner. The idea behind this design right is to give all ideas basic protection from being copied by others without the need to register, but it only applies to the basic shape, outline, and configuration of three-dimensional designs. Two-dimensional designs, like graphic designs and textiles, are not protected by the basic UK design right, meaning they have to be registered as designs for copyright protection.

How can you prove design right?

Design right may be automatic and free, but it requires more than just somebody’s word to win a case. To prove your design right in a court dispute, you must present it to the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), the regulatory body for all design copyright issues in the United Kingdom. This usually involves having a lawyer keeping signed and dated copies of design sketches or photographs. We recommend you seek legal advice and guidance for this.

What protection does design right offer?

Design right may apply automatically, but it doesn’t offer complete protection for your design idea. Firstly, it only applies to the shape of your object and the configuration of it – meaning the way in which different elements of the design are assembled, spaced out, and arranged. Your design needs to be three-dimensional and, as we mentioned earlier, you must be able to prove it. If you can do so, you’ll stop other designers from being able to copy your idea. However, design right only lasts for 10 years after your first sale, or 15 years after your initial design was created, and for the last 5 years of your design right validity, you must grant a license of right to any designer who requests one for your design concept.

What is design registration?

Design right is useful for protecting your design, but it does have its limitations. If you want to add extra protection to your ideas, you’ll need to register a design with the Intellectual Property Office. Design registration offers longer, more in-depth protection for your design idea under intellectual property legislation in the United Kingdom. But how do you actually register a design? There are a number of key steps you’ll need to take before you can consider your newest design a protected intellectual property. Below, we’ll guide you through the things to look out for when it comes to design registration.

Check that your design registration claim is valid

It might sound silly, but the first thing to do before applying to register a design is to check that your design meets the necessary criteria. The IPO considers a design to be the ‘look of a product’, and this covers four basic factors:

  • Appearance: the appearance of your design is merely an overarching term for how it looks generally. This may include a crossover with any of the other design factors listed below.
  • Physical shape: a design’s shape relates to the contours of the design edges, the relative proportions of different sections of the design, and general facts, like the height, width, and breadth of a design.
  • Configuration: the configuration is a neat term for the way in which different elements within a design are arranged and laid out as one.
  • Decoration: the final factor in design registration relates to the style and choice of patterns, colours, symbols, shapes, logos, and other attractive features that make a design stand out from the crowd.

Registering a design will protect any number of the aforementioned aspects of your design. So, if you’ve designed a new water bottle, you could opt for a design registration that protects the decoration of the bottle, or the decoration and physical shape, or all factors combined.

What can be registered

For your design registration to be successful, it has to be a completely new idea. If anyone holds a design registration for a similar design, yours will be deemed invalid and may also be considered in breach of theirs. Registered designs must be the complete intellectual property of the applicant. If you want to find out whether your design would be unique, you can do so using the Designview tool. This extensive back catalogue research can take some time, so the Intellectual Property Office offer a service that searches for similar designs and potential design registration infringement for you. This service costs £25.

There are certain things that can’t be registered. These include anything featuring protected symbols (like the Royal Crown or the Union Jack) or anything that could be considered offensive (like explicit images or offensive language). Design registration doesn’t cover the functionality of a product either. The way that a product works is considered an invention, rather than a design, and so requires a patent instead.

What are the benefits of design registration?

Registering a design protects your design as your exclusive intellectual property for up to 25 years. Since this is a document issued and recognised by the state, it means that it’s easier and quickerto take legal action against anyone who infringes upon your design. You can also display your design registration number on your design – a move that can add authenticity to your work and improve your reputation among customers. But remember – you will need to renew your design registration every 5 years, or else it will automatically expire.

How to register a design

Once you’re set on registering your design, there are two steps you’ll need to take.

  • Prepare your illustrations: you’ll need to provide detailed drawings to register a design. There are a clear set of rules indicated on the GOV.UK website for this, which include showing the design against a plain background, with no foreign objects and no technical measurements. If the design has multiple relevant views, you should include all of these angles as separate drawings (up to a maximum of 7). You can draw your design using photographs, line drawings, computer-aided design (CAD), or rendered CAD. For a full list of rules and regulations regarding illustrations for design registration, visit the GOV.UK page.
  • Decide which parts of your design should be registered: you don’t have to register an entire design. Instead, you can choose to register just part of it. This can be beneficial if you want to produce multiple different coloured products featuring the same design, for example. You can explain which section of your design should be registered by colouring the protected section in grey and highlighting it with a circle or bold line. Then, you should include a short sentence or two clarifying this beyond all doubt. The sections of your design that you want to protect should be referred to as ‘limitations’ while the sections that aren’t protected should be entitled ‘disclaimers’.

Applying for design registration

There are two ways to register your design: online or via post. It’s cheaper and easier to apply online, so the IPO encourages you to do so. You’ll need to complete a standard application form, attach all prepared illustrations, and include a fee sheet for the correct fee you’re paying. The price for design registration is as follows:

Number of designs Price for online registration Price for postal registration
One £50 £60
Up to 10 £70  
Up to 20 £90  
Up to 30 £110  
Up to 40 £130  
Up to 50 £150  
Each additional design   £40

As the table above illustrates, there are clear financial incentives for bulk registration online. The Intellectual Property Office examines all applications within one month, after which your design will be registered barring any objections. If objections exist, there is a 2-month response period.

Renewing or deferring your design registration

If you want to pause your registration and defer it to a later date, then you can request this for a period of up to one year in your application. This can be useful if you still need time to develop your product for the marketplace, but any deferred design must be registered within one year at an additional cost of £40.

To keep your design registration valid, you’ll need to renew it a minimum of once every five years. Renewal should take place a maximum of six months before the fifth anniversary of your original registration (or last renewal). Failure to meet this will result in increased charges for ‘late renewals’. Renewals become increasingly more expensive over time, starting at just £70 for your first renewal but rising to £140 for your fourth one. Full details on renewal costs and penalties for late renewals can be found here.


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