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Industrial design protection

The design of a product is often the main reason that consumers chose it over others. Industrial design rights protect the appearance of a product, which results from attributes such as its shape, colours or materials. The EU has harmonised industrial design protection across EU countries and introduced the Community design that offers unitary protection across the EU through a single procedure.

The importance of design in the EU marketplace

Design-intensive industries play a vital role in the EU economy. A study by the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market/European Patent Office estimated that they generated 12.2% of EU employment and 12.8% of EU GDP in 2013. Design is increasingly recognised as key to bringing ideas to the market and transforming them into user-friendly and appealing products or services.

Design is important for consumers who often choose a product based on how it looks. Well-designed products create an important competitive advantage for producers and companies that invest in design tend to be more profitable and grow faster.

In order to encourage producers to invest in designs, there needs to be accessible, modern and effective legal protection for their design rights. Currently, there is a broad range of legal tools to protect designs at national and EU level. This gives right holders flexibility and a choice of protection that can be used according to their needs.

Design protection in the EU

Directive on the legal protection of designs

To ensure better coexistence and consistency of the systems of design protection in individual EU countries, the EU adopted Directive 98/71/EC on the legal protection of designs in 1998. The objective of the Design Directive is to ensure that registered design rights give the right holder equivalent protection in all EU countries.

Community design protection

Limiting design protection to the territory of individual EU countries could have led to a division of the internal market and would have constituted an obstacle to the free movement of goods. To prevent this, a unitary design right was established by Regulation No 6/2002 on Community design in 2002.

The Regulation brought into being a one-off, inexpensive procedure for registering designs with the Office for Harmonization of the Internal Market (OHIM). Those registering designs are granted the exclusive rights to use the design and to prevent any third party from using it anywhere in the EU for up to 25 years. The Regulation also provided for 'Unregistered Community Designs' that under certain conditions can also benefit from protection from deliberate copying without prior registration with the OHIM. In both cases, to be eligible for protection, designs must be new and must have an individual character. The aim of the Community design system is to ensure accessible design protection that suits the needs of all types of enterprises in the EU.

The link between international and Community Design protection

In 2007, the EU acceded to the Geneva Act of the Hague Agreement on the international registration of industrial designs. This agreement allows applicants to register a design in countries that are party to the Hague Agreement with a single application to the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Accession to the Agreement allows EU companies to obtain design protection not only throughout the EU with the Community Design, but also in the countries which are party to the Geneva Act. It simplifies procedures, reduces the costs for international protection and makes administration easier.

Economic Review on industrial design in Europe

In 2014, the Commission launched a comprehensive legal and economic evaluation of the overall functioning of the design protection systems. The current legislative framework, which dates back to 1998 (the Design Directive) and 2001 (the Community Design Regulation), foresees the need for the Commission to carry out such an evaluation, the results of which are foreseen for the beginning of 2016.

In the framework of this evaluation, an external contractor presented the Economic review on industrial design Choose translations of the previous link  in Europe at the beginning of 2015. The study provides information on the general characteristics of design-intensive industries in Europe, on the type of IPR being used to protect designs and on is the economic rationale behind using some IPRs more often than others. Moreover, the study looks at factors that determine when an industrial design protection sensu stricto is sought and assessed whether the existing legal framework fulfils its objectives, i.e. constitutes an economically effective tool which facilitates design activities.  In the context of the review the study touched upon the economic consequences of the non-harmonisation of the rules governing spare parts design protection in Europe, as well as the latest developments related to design protection, e.g. 3D printing.

The findings of the Economic review on industrial design in Europe and the conclusions of the ongoing Legal review on industrial design, which should be finalised at the beginning of 2016, will feed into the overall evaluation on design protection in the EU.

The information and views set out in this study are those of the authors. They do not reflect the official opinion of the Commission nor are binding upon the Commission.

The Commission does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this study. Neither the Commission nor any person acting on the Commission’s behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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