On 14 May 2014 the Intellectual Property Bill 2014 finally received royal assent and became law. The statute makes changes to British patent, registered design and unregistered design right law. This article discusses the changes that have been made to the the last of those topics.
Unregistered design right (generally known as "design right") is a peculiarly British intellectual property right. The intellectual asset that it is used to protect are functional designs, that is to say the design of machinery, electrical circuitry and components. No other country has adopted that legal mechanism though Hong Kong and New Zealand protect such designs by copyright. Most other countries rely on utility models or a law of unfair competition for that purpose.
Essentially, design right protects aspects of shape or configuration of articles for parts of articles so long as they are recorded in a design document or am article is made to the design. The design term is quite short: 10 years if products are made to the design in the first 5 years after the design's creation or 15 years if they were not and in the last 5 years of the term anyone in the world including an infringer can undertake to take a licence to do what might otherwise be an infringement as of right.
Over the years a number of uncertainties and anomalies have arisen. The definition of "design" is so loose that microscopic changes in dimension can give rise to separate rights. Those who commission designs rather than the creators are the first owners of design right. Though the right is unregistered various issues relating to design right are referred to the Comptroller-General of Patents, Designs and Trade Marks (or in practice hearing officers appointed by the Comptroller from whom there are two separate routes of appeal.
The Intellectual Property Act 2014 addresses those anomalies. It tightens up the definition of "design" and originality. It abolishes the automatic right of a commissioner of a design to be the first owner of the design right in the design. It relaxes the qualification requirements so that major businesses from outside the UK can claim that right. It introduces a number of exceptions to design right and simplifies the appeal structure,
This is the only area of design law that Parliament can change since Community designs are granted under an EU regulation and nation states have to harmonize their national design registration law with an EU directive. The changes are quite modest and are unlikely to have any great effect on growth and innovation. They are not what the design lobby wanted. Nevertheless they are quite worthy and are thus worth enacting,