Design rights are not the same as copyright, but are valuable intellectual property assets nonetheless. Consider the traditional Coca-Cola bottle, which instantly conveys the brand image to the consumer.
Accordingly, companies are highly protective of their design rights and a registered design is protected in the UK for a period of 25 years.
However, the protection of a design does not mean that a similar design is incapable of being used. For example, it would be impossible to construct a jet engine which looked significantly different from another one. This principle was one of the reasons the Court of Appeal recently ruled that vacuum cleaner manufacturer Dyson’s design rights were not infringed by a similar-looking model made by Vax.
The nub of the issue, however, was whether the two designs of vacuum cleaner gave a different overall impression to the ‘informed user’. The Court found that the distinctiveness of the Dyson and Vax designs was clear enough and the fact that they share some common features of shape and a transparent collector bin would not be sufficient to create confusion in the mind of an informed user as to which is which. It is the overall impression that is crucial.