Legally speaking: Can you counter copyright infringement?

Each month an expert from solicitor, Wright Hassall, takes a look at a different dilemma for small businesses from a legal perspective. This month, Rhys Jarman, examines what you can do if you think a competitor has copied your designs.

Q: I think one of my competitors has copied my product design. Is there anything I can do to stop them from selling this product?

A: I can already hear you shout “Nothing!” You may also be saying “And, even if I could, it would be too costly and time consuming for me anyway”. Well, then this answer may be a pleasant surprise to you!

copyright infringement There are design laws in both the UK and the EU which should be able to help you. In general terms, if the overall appearance of your product is different from designs that have gone before then the look of your product will automatically be protected by law.

Perhaps surprisingly, if you’re in a business which is not focussed on intellectual property, there is no need to register your design with any organisation. You also don’t need to mark the design of your product in any particular way. The protection arises without you having to do so and will last for either three or ten years.

The good news does not end there. For a long time, the costs and time associated with bringing a claim through the courts have frustrated many smaller businesses, with the result that many strong claims are not pursued. This has now been recognised and a specialist Intellectual Property Court in London has been revamped to cater to the needs of SMEs.

The Intellectual Property Enterprise Court has rules to keep the cost and time of the process to a minimum and to enable business owners to budget sensibly for the cost and time involved. As a result, claims have been brought successfully and commercially when the losses to the businesses concerned have been significantly less than £10,000.

Often the biggest prize, however, remains your ability to prevent your competitor from carrying on using the design.

Here are some further tips for you to consider:

  • Keep copies of your design drawings and date them as you go. These will be very useful if you need to protect the look of your product.
  • Be very careful about making an allegation before taking advice. If you make an allegation that is proven to be wrong, then your competitor may have a claim against you.
  • Do take advice from a specialist solicitor as soon as possible; intellectual property protection and enforcement remain a complex area and it’ll pay in the long run.
  • If you believe a design has particular value to you then speak to an IP professional about registering that design. By doing so, you could get longer and more focused protection – it’s not as expensive as you may think!
  • If your competitor has copied the way your product(s) works, the look of your website, or your name or branding, then other areas of intellectual property law may be able to help you too.

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