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What Are Design Rights? How to Protect Your Design IP

by Chris Brook on Tuesday June 18, 2024

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The goal of design rights is that others will be prevented from copying or using the look of your product. Learn how they differ from patents and the benefits of registering design rights to protect your IP in this week's blog.

Design rights refer to a type of intellectual property protection that applies to a product’s visual design or appearance.


This can include shape, configuration, pattern, or ornamentation. These rights do not cover the functional aspects of a product, which patents typically protect. Design rights can either be registered, providing greater protection and exclusive rights, or unregistered, which provide more limited and shorter-term protection. 


In essence, design rights prevent others from copying or using the distinctive look of a product without authorization.

What Do Design Rights Protect?

Design rights protect a product's visual appearance or aesthetic design, including its shape, configuration, pattern, and ornamentation. 


It covers both two-dimensional designs, such as graphics, textiles, and logos, and three-dimensional designs, like a product's shape or pattern. However, it's important to note that design rights do not protect functional features or concepts. The purpose of these rights is to prevent others from copying or using your original design without permission.

How Do Design Rights Work?

Design rights protect products' unique visual appearance or design. They do not protect an idea but rather the way an item looks. This could be the appearance of the whole product or just a part of it. This protection ensures that a design or shape cannot be copied legally.


Design rights can be categorized as registered and unregistered. Unregistered design rights exist automatically when you create an original design. This gives the creator the right to prevent the design from being copied. However, having unregistered design rights means you’ll have to prove the design is yours, which can be difficult. 


On the other hand, registered design rights require a formal application, usually submitted to a national government authority. If approved, these rights provide stronger protection as the owner gets a certificate proving their creation, which can be a crucial asset during legal disputes.


Design rights generally work by:

  • Protecting the design: From the moment a design is created and registered, design rights begin working to protect that design from infringement. This prevents others from using the design without the owner's permission.
  • Granting exclusivity: Design rights provide the owner with exclusive rights to use, manufacture, sell, import, or export the design. They also give the owner legal grounds to take action against any unauthorized use.
  • Time-limited: Design rights are typically time-limited. Depending on the jurisdiction, these rights can last up to 25 years, but they often have to be renewed every five years.
  • Territory-based: Design rights are usually limited to the country or region where the design is registered. To have a design protected in multiple countries, the owner would have to apply for design rights in each of those countries.

It's important to note that all elements of a design may not qualify for protection and that design rights, like all intellectual property rights, are subject to exception and limitation rules. Therefore, professional legal advice should be sought when dealing with design rights.

How Long Do Design Rights Last?

Design rights duration varies based on the type of right and the jurisdiction:

  • Registered Design Rights: These typically last for 25 years in jurisdictions such as the UK and EU, but they must be renewed every five years.
  • Unregistered Design Rights: These are automatically protected from copying in the UK for 10 years after the first marketing of products using the design, or 15 years after creating the design - whichever is earliest. However, within the European Union, unregistered Community designs are only protected for 3 years after the design is made available to the public.

It's important to note that the duration might differ depending on the specific laws of the country where the design is registered or used.

The Difference Between Registered and Unregistered Design Rights

Registered and unregistered design rights both protect the visual aspects of a product but vary in a few key aspects:

  • Registration: Registered design rights require you to actively apply for protection with an intellectual property office, while unregistered design rights automatically exist when a design is created.
  • Duration of Protection: Registered design rights often last longer. They can last up to 25 years in the UK, with a renewal every five years. Unregistered design rights in the UK last for ten years after the first sale or 15 years after creation, whichever is earliest.
  • Geographical Coverage: Registered design rights provide protection only in the territories where they have been registered. Conversely, unregistered design rights in the UK only provide you with protection in the UK. 
  • Proof of Infringement: With registered design rights, you do not need to prove that your design was copied to claim infringement. However, with unregistered design rights, you must prove your design was copied.
  • Scope: Registered design rights protect the appearance of the whole or part of a product. This includes lines, contours, colors, shapes, textures, materials, and ornamentation. Unregistered design rights protect any aspect of the shape or configuration of a product’s whole.
  • Costs: There are official fees for registering a design right, while unregistered design rights are free but may involve higher enforcement costs. 

The Difference Between Design Rights and a Patent

Design rights and patents are both forms of intellectual property protection but protect different aspects of a creation.


A design right protects the visual appearance of a product or its packaging, including lines, contours, colors, shape, texture, and materials. It does not pertain to anything that is not visible to the eye. 


Design rights can be registered or unregistered and typically last for a fixed period (up to 25 years for registered designs, shorter for unregistered).


On the other hand, a patent protects the functionality or methodology behind an invention - how it works, what it does, how it does it, what it is made of, or how it is made. Patents cover a broad range of inventions, including machines, manufactured products, industrial processes, and chemical compositions. 


An invention must be novel, useful, and non-obvious to be patented. Patent protection allows the holder to prevent others from making, using, selling, or importing the patented invention without permission. Patents typically last for 20 years from the filing date.


In many cases, both design rights and patents can protect different aspects of the same product. For example, a unique-looking chair (design right) that uses new technology for adjustable support (patent).

What Are the Advantages of Design Rights?

  • Exclusive Rights: Owning a registered design gives you exclusive rights to use, manufacture, sell, import, or export the design. This prevents other businesses from using your design without your permission.
  • Commercial Value: Design rights can significantly increase a business's commercial value. They can be licensed, sold, or used as collateral for business loans. 
  • Legal Protection: Design rights offer legal protection against infringement. If someone uses your design without permission, you can take legal action against them. 
  • Competitive Advantage: A unique and attractive design can set a product apart from its competitors. By protecting this design, a business can maintain its uniqueness in the market. 
  • Long-Term Protection: In many jurisdictions, registered design rights can last up to 25 years if renewed every five years. This provides long-term protection for your investment in product design.
  • A deterrent to infringers: Registered design rights can deter potential infringers as they may prefer not to risk legal action.
  • Protects investment: Design rights protect the time, money, and effort invested into developing a unique design from being profited by others.
  • Boosts Reputation: Registered designs can enhance a company's reputation by showing its commitment to protecting its intellectual property. 
  • Increases business’s potential: With an exclusive right to the registered design, businesses can increase their market share and profitability. 
  • Offers international protection: Businesses can seek design protection in multiple countries, providing protection for their designs globally.

The Benefits of Design Rights

Design rights offer several benefits to their owners:

  • Exclusive Rights: They provide the owner with the exclusive right to use the design, which can prevent others from copying or closely imitating the product's design.
  • Legal Protection: In case of infringing activities, design rights give the owner legal power to take action against the infringers and seek compensation.
  • Competitive Advantage: They work as a strategic tool for businesses to stay ahead of their competitors. By protecting a unique design, businesses can ensure their products stand out in the market and can therefore capture greater market share.
  • Commercial Exploitation: Owners can commercially exploit their design rights by licensing them to others or selling the rights for monetary gain.
  • Enhanced Reputation: Registered design rights may boost a business's reputation, demonstrating a commitment to originality and innovation.
  • Long-Term Protection: Design rights can offer long-term protection (up to 25 years in some regions if renewed periodically), ensuring the design remains exclusive to the owner for an extended period.

Market Value: Design rights can increase a business's value, making it more attractive to potential investors or buyers. This is because they can be considered valuable to a company's intellectual property portfolio.

Tags:  IP Protection

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