Everybody knows that footwear design is big business but in the current market, protecting designs is becoming more and more important. As financial pressures increase there is always a temptation to cut down on design costs and to purchase cheap shoes from the Far East without giving any thought to where that design came from in the first place. You may have spent thousands of pounds on creating your designs, so why should you tolerate unauthorised reproductions?

Here I share my top ten tips for protecting your footwear designs from copycats who can cause significant damage to your business:

1. Are your designs capable of protection?

This means checking that your designs are "new" and have "individual character". If these boxes are ticked, the appearance of your designs will be protected throughout Europe by the Community Design Regulations.

2. Know your market: go shoe shopping!

Make sure you are fully familiar with the designs which are currently on the market so that you can ensure that your design is different and has individual character when compared with existing designs.

3. Record every step

Make sure that you date and retain all of your design drawings (including all drafts and rough notes) so that you can show the providence of your design. Leading brands such as Rieker understand the importance of this and record their designs as a matter of course.

4. Inspiration not imitation.

Whilst it is commonplace and entirely natural to take inspiration from other designs which are successful, that is as far as you should go. The safest way to ensure that you do not stray into the realms of imitation is to ensure that you do not have sample or images of other designs lying around during the design process. This should be followed by a review of your new design against those designs which you took inspiration from.

5. Check your contracts are tightly laced up

Make sure that the contracts you have in place with any third parties who might have access to your designs (such as manufacturing companies and sales agents) specify that you own all rights in those designs and make sure they know that copying is not permitted.

6. Know your designers

It might sound simple but it is important to know exactly who is creating your designs. The general rule is that it is actually the designer who owns the design and not the person who commissioned the work. However, if the designer is an employee then, provided the design is created in the course of their employment, the employer will be the first owner of the design.

7. Watch your dates

Provided it meets the requirements for protection, a Community design attracts automatic protection for 3 years from the date it is first made available to the public in the European Community (this is provided it is first made available to the public in the EC). It is therefore important not to 'accidentally' make your designs available to the public before you are ready and to make sure that when they are first made available it is within the EC!

8. What about registration?

If you think that your design is likely to have staying power and you would like to protect it for more than 3 years you should consider obtaining a registered Community design. This allows you to protect your design from copying for up to 25 years!

9. Policing

There is absolutely no point in spending considerable time and money creating your own designs if you are just going to let your competitors copy them without putting your best foot forward and taking steps to stop them. By copying your designs your competitors are able to obtain a price advantage as they do not have the increased costs of employing a designer or design team.

If you fail to police your designs they are effectively worthless and imitations will spring up all over the place! Rieker, Footwear Today's Footwear Brand of the Year, actively polices its rights which helps to stop copycat brands at an early stage, before they get out of control.

10. Build relationships

Build relationships with your local trading standards and specialist Intellectual Property solicitors so that if an issue arises you know exactly who to speak to so that you can kick it into touch. I know my client well and understand how it operates from an initial design through to the finished product. This all contributes to obtaining a swift resolution with minimal disruption to its business.