Magazine article Online

DESIGN Searching: The Forgotten Corner of Intellectual Property

Magazine article Online

DESIGN Searching: The Forgotten Corner of Intellectual Property

Article excerpt

Registered designs, also called industrial designs outside the U.K., rarely fall within the responsibilities of the average online searcher, even those who specialize in intellectual property. Yet they are increasing in importance for all sectors of industry, and the available tools to search them have been revolutionized by the advent of Web-based, image-rich sources over the last few years.


In the United Kingdom, the current legislation on registered designs, as set out in the Registered Designs Act of 1949, section 1, defines them as "features of shape, configuration or ornament applied to an article by any industrial process, being features which in the finished article appeal to and are judged by the eye." Similar definitions are used in other jurisdictions to distinguish designs, which protect "eye-appeal" features of a product, from patents, which concentrate on the technical advances required to manufacture the product. To complicate matters, the United Kingdom also has an unregistered design right, which is a special type of copyright applied to the design of most articles designed in the European Union from 1989 onwards. However, this article will concentrate on the formally registered designs area.

A registered design enables its owner to stop other people from producing articles of similar appearance. In most European countries, the right lasts initially for five years from the date of application. By paying renewal fees, this can be extended four times, each time by a further five years, making twenty-five years in all. In the United States, the term for the corresponding Design Patent is 14 years from the date of grant. Terms in most other countries range from ten to fifteen years.


Current interest in industrial design applications in the U.S. is extremely high. The number of design patent applications received by the USPTO grows every year at a rate that usually surpasses the percentage growth of utility applications. The examining staff in the Designs section has more than doubled in the past decade. Furthermore, the United States is considering membership in the Hague Agreement, which, if it happens, would be likely to cause an even greater increase in design patent activity.

Comparing the number of design applications filed in the United States and the United Kingdom over the last 10 years, it is clear that the rate of U.S. filings is increasing over this period, while in the U.K. the rate is relatively static. However, it should be noted that U.S. Design Patent filings still averaged only some 7% of utility patent filings. Over the same period in the U.K., the number of design filings averaged approximately 32% of the level of patent filings.


For many years, industrial designs have been used by manufacturers to protect the appearance of their products. Hence the system has been used by a huge range of companies, in fields such as toys and games, fabrics, furniture, electronic goods such as hifi systems and watches, leisure goods, wallpaper, technical and medical instruments, vehicles, and even architectural structures. In fact, the first law on industrial designs in the United Kingdom was the Designing and Printing of Linens, Cotton, Calicoes and Muslins Act of 1787. Today, some of the most active companies applying for design registration include Ty Inc., for its range of Beanie Babies toys, and the Swiss company Swatch AG, manufacturing Swatch watches. Another popular area is that of containers, which can range from perfume bottles to plastic buckets. The most popular five classes of design, deposited under the system of the international Hague Agreement during 1999, are an eclectic group.

As a result of this strong link with the manufacturing sector, designs have not featured highly in the intellectual property interests of other industries, such as chemicals. …

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