Design can be a key part of what makes a product successful - visual appearance may be the single most important factor setting your product apart from the rest. Protecting your designs and enforcing your intellectual property rights helps to fight off the competition and maintain the value of your intellectual property assets.
Automatic design right protects three-dimensional designs (but not two-dimensional designs, or features such as patterns or decoration on a three-dimensional design) by giving you the right to stop anyone else deliberately copying your design without your permission. Automatic design right does not apply to designs that are 'commonplace or ordinary'.
Design right usually lasts for 15 years from when you first market products using the design. During the first ten years, you have the right to stop anyone else using the design. After that, you are required to offer a licence to use the design to anyone else who wants to use it (but you can profit from it).
Although others are not allowed to copy your design, they are allowed to use design features that are necessary in order to create spare parts that fit or match your product, even if they are your competitors.
Registering a design with the Intellectual Property Office can give you a stronger form of design protection. It gives you a monopoly on the manufacture, stock, sale, import or export of a product carrying your design, or one that is similar to it, for five years. The registration can be renewed every five years, for up to 25 years in total. You can apply for design registration for any new design with an 'individual character', provided that the design is not already publicly available anywhere. Design registration can apply to both two-dimensional and three-dimensional designs.
Design right and registered designs are not the only ways of protecting designs. Some features of designs may automatically be protected by copyright. For example, original images. You may also be able to patent innovative product design features. For example, the way a new product works.
If you are developing new designs, you should think carefully about how to best protect them. Maintaining confidentiality is essential - design registration and patent protection will no longer be available if a design has become public. Regardless of how you choose to protect your design, you should also keep evidence of its creation.
The right protection makes it easier to exploit your designs. Although you may choose to do this by using the design yourself, you may also want to consider alternatives such as licensing or selling the design to a manufacturer. This sort of approach allows small design specialists to focus on design without the need for heavy investment in manufacturing and distribution.