Design right and registration
There are two main ways of protecting designs in the UK - through unregistered design rights or design registration.
Design right is automatic and applies when you record your original design in a document. It protects the shape or configuration of your product against direct copying and lasts either ten or 15 years, depending on when the product is first sold or created.
Registered designs protect the appearance of the whole or part of a product, including lines, contours, colours, shape, texture, materials or ornamentation. The rights arise on registration, last for up to 25 years and offer stronger protection against infringement.
This guide explains how you can use unregistered design right and registered designs to protect your intellectual property. It outlines the key differences between design right and design registration, highlights the advantages of protecting your designs, and tells you how to register a design in the UK, Europe and further afield.
Unregistered design right
In the UK, unregistered design rights protect the shape or configuration of products. The rights arise automatically on the creation of the work and come into force when the article is first made or 'fixed' in a document - eg a drawing or a computer model.
How long does UK design right last?
UK design right lasts for ten or 15 years, depending on when the product is first sold or created - whichever comes earliest. You can buy, sell or licence a design right.
What is eligible for unregistered design right?
For the design rights to apply, the design has to be:
- original - ie your own work and not a copy
- non-commonplace - ie not broadly known in the similar category of products
A design right will not apply if the design is dictated by the need to fit onto something else or match the rest of the product.
UK design right also won't apply to any two-dimensional surface decoration, eg textiles or wallpaper. For this, see registered designs.
Who owns the design right?
Generally, the design right belongs to the person who created the design. However:
- if the work was created by an employee during the course of employment, the right will belong to the employer
- if the work was commissioned from a designer, the person commissioning the work will own the rights (unless otherwise agreed)
What do design rights protect?
Design rights protect against unauthorised copying. However, a design right is not a monopoly right and may not stop others from producing similar articles by independent creation.
In infringement actions, the burden will be on you (ie the owner of the right) to show that the right exists and that copying has taken place.
European unregistered community designs
Designs, including patterns, may be automatically protected in the European Union (EU) as unregistered community designs (UCDs). UCDs provide a three year protection for two- and three-dimensional designs.
Important: UCDs will remain valid in the UK throughout the Brexit transition period until the end of 2020. On 1 January 2021, existing UCDs will be immediately and automatically replaced by a corresponding UK continuing unregistered design. This design will provide protection for the remainder of the 3-year term attached to the original UCD. Find guidance on unregistered community designs at the end of the transition period.
A registered design is a monopoly right for the appearance of the whole or part of a product, resulting particularly from the lines, contours, colours, shape, texture and materials of a product or its ornamentation.
Design registrations are territorial rights. A UK registered design gives protection only in the UK. Registered community designs cover member states of the EU.
If you need to protect your design in other countries, you can file separate applications in those territories or file an international application with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) under the Hague Agreement to cover a number of different territories.
What does UK registered design cover?
A UK registered design covers two-dimensional as well as three-dimensional articles and ornamentation. This could be anything from patterns on textiles or plates to the shape of a car or the design of part of a product, such as a kettle handle.
Design registration in the UK lasts for five years initially, but you can renew it every five years for a maximum of 25 years.
What designs can you register?
To register your design, it must:
- be new - ie must be substantially different from known designs
- have individual character - ie give an appearance of originality
- not be offensive
- not feature certain protected flags and international emblems - eg the Olympic symbol
What designs can't you register?
You can't register a design on how a product works and there are limitations in applying for a design to the interior of a product.
If you have invented an innovative product, you may be able to apply for a patent to protect its function, operation, manufacture and/or material. For more information, see how to get patent protection for your business.
Why should you register your design?
Registering a design can offer the design owner much stronger protection of their work than just unregistered design rights. Registration can:
- help protect any aspect of your design, eg both the product's shape and decoration
- give you a longer term of protection
- give you the exclusive right to make, use or stock any item incorporating your design
- make taking legal action against infringement and copying more straightforward
You can show that your product has registered design protection by marking your product with the relevant registered design numbers.
From 1 October 2017, you can also mark your product with a web address, instead of the registered design number. The webpage must be freely accessible and clearly set out the registered design number(s) relevant to that product.
Giving notice of your design rights by marking your product could help stop accidental infringement. It may also help you get damages if someone does infringe your right. See more on the advantages of protecting your designs and key differences between design right and design registration.
Registered community designs
A registered community design (RCD) enables you to register your design in a single application in all the member states of the European Union (EU).
It is a monopoly right which protects your design against copying and infringement for an initial term of five years, renewable up to a maximum of 25 years.
Protecting your designs in Europe
If you trade in a single EU country, you may want to register your design just in that territory. This would give you the exclusive rights within that country but it won't prevent anyone from copying your design in other EU countries.
If you do business in more than one EU country, it makes financial and practical sense to apply for a community design. The requirements for registration and the level of protection are broadly the same as for UK registered designs, but a registered community design extends across the entire EU.
Important: RCDs will continue to extend to the UK during the Brexit transition period until the end of 2020. Once this period expires, RCDs will no longer be valid in the UK. On 1 January 2021, the UK IPO will create comparable UK designs for all right holders with an existing RCD. These rights will be recorded on the UK register and treated as if they had been applied for and registered under UK law. Find guidance on registered community designs at the end of the transition period.
How to apply for EU design registration
You can file applications for registered community designs at the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO). You have to make them within 12 months of the design first being made available to the public within the EU.
See how to register a design or read EUIPO's guidance on registered community designs. For design protection overseas, see how to register designs internationally under the Hague System.
Key differences between design right and design registration
The table below summarises the essential differences between the protection offered by the design rights and the design registration.
|Unregistered design right||Registered design|
|What does it apply to?||In the UK, it applies only to three-dimensional articles. In the EU, it applies to two- and three- dimensional articles.||Applies to both two- and three-dimensional articles.|
|What does it cover?||In the UK, it covers the shape and configuration of products, internal and external. In the EU, it covers the whole product.||Covers the appearance of a product, resulting particularly from its lines, contours, colours, shape, texture and materials or its ornamentation.|
|When does it apply?||Automatic right.||Arises on registration with the Intellectual Property Office in the UK, or the EU Intellectual Property Office for EU applications.|
|How long does it last?||Lasts up to 15 years in the UK and three years in the European Union.||Lasts up to 25 years, subject to it being renewed every five years.|
|How do you enforce it?||You have to prove that you hold the design and that deliberate copying has taken place in infringement actions.||You don't have to prove deliberate copying in infringement actions.|
|How effective is it?||Less likely to act as a deterrent against infringement. Also, difficult to establish for selling and licensing purposes.||More likely to act as a deterrent against infringement and easy to sell or license.|
How to register a design
You can register a design in a number of ways, depending on where you want the registration to apply.
Registering a design in the UK
You will have to file an application with the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) to register your design in the UK. You can register your design online.
To register your design, you will need to:
- include up to 12 illustrations (or more if you are applying by post)
- pay a registration fee
- have a credit or debit card to complete the payment (if you're applying online)
See how to prepare illustrations.
How much does it cost to register a design?
The application fee for design registration is:
- £50 for your first design
- £70 for up to 10 designs
- £90 for up to 20 designs
- £110 for up to 30 designs
- £130 for up to 40 designs
- £150 for up to 50 designs
Find out more about registered designs.
Registering a design in the EU
Applications for registered community designs (RCDs) are filed at the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO). The easiest way to file an application is to apply online, although other ways are possible.
Your application must include:
- a depiction of the design, eg a drawing or photograph
- a fee payment - from €350 for a single design
Registering a design overseas
The Hague System for the International Registration of Industrial Designs allows you to simultaneously apply for a design in many different countries or territories through a single application. Read more about the Hague system.
Advice on design registration
Design registration can be complex - trade mark attorneys and patent attorneys are lawyers who specialise in this area. Find a registered patent attorney or a qualified trade mark attorney in your area.
You can also seek advice about intellectual property (IP) protection from Invest Northern Ireland's IP advisers.
Search for registered designs
Before you can protect your design, you will need to make sure that it is unique and not infringing on anyone else's intellectual property rights.
Registered design search
You can check the following design registers to see if earlier designs exist:
You can also ask the Intellectual Property Office to search for you for £25.
Even if a design isn't registered, someone else could still hold unregistered design right. Your search should be as comprehensive and as thorough as possible.
In some cases, it may be appropriate to get an expert such as a patent attorney to conduct a more in-depth search.
Copying other people's designs
If you make, sell, import or use articles that infringe someone else's design right or registered design, it can cause serious damage to your business.
It may result in legal action being taken against you and you could be ordered to pay considerable costs and damages to the person whose designs you have infringed - even if you haven't intentionally copied them.
If you intentionally copy someone's design without the consent of its owner, whilst knowing or having reason to believe the design is registered, you could be found guilty of a criminal offence.
It is good business sense to check that any design you intend to use as part of your business doesn't already belong to someone else.
Defending your designs
If you're suspecting someone of infringing your rights, find out how to defend your design against infringement.
Advantages of protecting your designs
Your designs can be an important asset and play a key role in the success of your business. They can:
- distinguish your goods from those of competitors
- be a significant selling point
- generate income, eg through licensing or selling
- be used to raise capital, eg as security for a loan
- form an essential part of your business branding
Design right and registration can protect that asset and add value to your business.
How to exploit your designs
Licensing or selling your registered designs, instead of exploiting them yourself, can provide an important source of revenue for your business. Indeed, some businesses exist solely to collect the royalties from a registered design they have licensed.
Some products can be protected and then licensed with a combination of a registered design, a patent and trade marks.
You must inform the Intellectual Property Office if you intend to license or sell a registered design.