Registered versus unregistered designs

What is the difference between registered and unregistered designs?

As the name suggests, registered designs must be centrally registered at an intellectual property office in order to have effect, whereas unregistered designs come into effect automatically (i.e. without any formal registration process). The scope of protection and the criteria for infringement vary greatly between registered and unregistered design rights.

In the UK and in Europe, registered designs are a monopolistic right, as opposed to unregistered design rights (which are a form of copyright, that is they require copying for there to be infringement). As a result, and since registered and unregistered design rights are distinct but complementary, it is preferable to have both modes of protection in place.

Different types of unregistered design rights available in the UK:

  • Unregistered design right
  • Supplementary unregistered designs
  • Continuing unregistered designs

Unregistered design rights

These come into effect when a design is created, and lasts for either 10 years after a product incorporating the design was first sold, or 15 years after the design was created, depending on which of these events took place earlier. 

Supplementary unregistered designs

Supplementary unregistered designs come into effect automatically when the design is first made available to the public within the UK, and last for three years.  

Unregistered design rights and supplementary unregistered designs have different scopes of protection. Furthermore, there exist major differences in what is and isn’t protected by unregistered design rights compared to registered design rights.

Continuing unregistered designs

The final form of unregistered design rights are continuing unregistered designs, which correspond to pre-existing European unregistered designs that covered the UK prior to 1 January 2021 (the end of the Brexit transition period). They are otherwise identical to supplementary unregistered designs. UK designers have a pool of options for protecting and enforcing their designs, which if used correctly, should place them in good stead against infringers.