Protecting intellectual property has always been a complex area of law, but in one specific area things may be getting clearer. The Registered Designs Regulations 2001 include several protections for inventors of designs.
If you have a new design which is significantly different (‘novel’) from any previous design that has been made available to the public then you may be able to register the design, provided it has an ‘individual character’. What this means is that the item(s) made from it appear different to an ‘informed user’ of that sort of product.
Having ascertained that the design is sufficiently novel to be registered, the next hurdle is to ensure that the design relates to a product. Under the new regulations this can be almost anything that is an industrial or handicraft item, but it cannot be software. These definitions are less restrictive than the old ones, because they allow protection for the designs of 'one-off' as well as mass-produced products and they allow the registration of the representations of items (icons) as well as industrial designs.
To register a design, you must apply within twelve months of the first public display or use of the design. Under the old rules, the application to register had to be carried out first, before public disclosure of the design.
It is possible to register designs throughout the EC for a period of 25 years by being granted a Registered Community Design.
There are some types of design that cannot be registered. For example, you cannot register an item if it would prevent the use of other parts designed to be attached to it or to match it physically. The main application of this rule will be with regard to spare parts.
Once your design is registered you will have an initial 5 year period during which you have the exclusive right to exploit the design. After that you can have a further twenty-five years provided you renew the rights. For more information, see the UK Intellectual Property Office website.