International protection of designs – US and Japan to join

The international design protection system (the Geneva Act of the Hague Agreement) is continuously being perfected and further expanded. The latest of the big economies to join the system was South Korea (as of 1 July 2014), and yesterday it was reported that the US and Japan will be announcing their accession to the agreement in the immediate future.

Design protection as such, hence the protection of the shape and the outward appearance of products and parts thereof, and its numerous uses as a part of an IP portfolio still remains somewhat unknown to many companies.

In the EU the design laws have already been almost completely harmonised, which has led to an increase in the amount of Registered Community Design (RCDs) applications filed as well as their enforcement. This unitary procedure has made the design rights fast to register, relatively affordable and above all very essential, considering our large EU internal market and the amount of protected designs increasing in other parts of the world.

However, the basic principles pertaining to design protection vary from country to country much more than those concerning patents or trademarks. The term and the scope of protection are good examples thereof varying from country to country. An example is the term of protection for designs, being maximum of 25 years in the EU, 14 years in the US and only 10 years in China. In the EU the RCDs are also well suited for protecting graphical user interfaces (GUIs). However, such a possibility of protecting GUIs does not exist in all countries having design rights legislation.

The fact that the US and Japan are now joining the international design application system can be seen both an opportunity and a slight threat to the EU market. It will now be easier and cost-effective for American and Japanese companies to protect their designs using the international application procedure in the EU and nationally in other member states and areas under the Geneva Act, including Finland.

In light of the above, the importance of a high quality design registrations driven by company’s IP strategy is growing in the EU internal market. The accession of these large markets into the international system will presumably also affect the enforcement activities in the EU.

As international IPR agreements are expanding, it is important to remember to validate the company’s IP strategy and assess whether some fine-tuning or even changes are in order, depending on the company’s line of business. It is especially important to recognise the opportunities of design protection, as well as its limitations and make full use of it in the manner best suited to the company’s own business.

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