For many digital based companies, patent protection simply will not be appropriate or cost effective. This is because the technology is often on the edge of what is patentable. Fortunately in these cases, businesses can turn to registered designs for IP protection.

Registered design protection can be used to protect the look of web pages and app interfaces, providing extra security for many businesses and should be part of any effective IP strategy.

Most businesses will have some sort of website. Many companies also have mobile phone apps, and for some, this is at the very heart of what they are doing. All of these methods of engaging customers will have various electronic user interfaces. There are two questions that, as IP attorneys, we are often asked:

  • What can and cannot be protected by patents in a user interface? And
  • What other IP does a company have in these interfaces?

Whether or not a specific software based invention, such as a user interface, can be protected by a patent is a complex area, since both UK law states that ‘software as such’ cannot be protected, and European patent law includes similar provisions. However, there is now a large body of case law that determines what exactly is and is not excluded, and many software based inventions can be protected. However, when patent protection is not appropriate, there are still many routes to protecting user interfaces.

Branding is often a key part of what sets a company’s user interfaces apart from its competition. Having trade mark protection can prevent competitors using similar branding on their interfaces. There will also be copyright in the code behind the user interfaces, and in the visual appearance of the interfaces.

Registered designs can be used to protect the appearance of the whole or part of a product. Registered designs are well known for protecting the appearance of physical products, but they can also be used to protect part or whole of a user interface, from the whole page, right down to individual icons.

Registering user interfaces as designs can have significant advantages over simply relying on copyright protection. In the UK and Europe, copyright requires no registration. Having a registered right, such as a design, immediately puts the right owner in a position of strength, as they do not have to prove the existence of the right. Furthermore, having registered protection may provide a deterrent and makes it clear intellectual property protection is valued and taken seriously.

In addition, to prove infringement of copyright in an interface, it is necessary to prove there has been copying. This can be complex and costly. Copying is not necessary to prove infringement of a registered design, making enforcement more straight forward.

Also, whilst it may be possible to protect aspects of a user interface using trade marks, it is likely to prove very difficult to protect the whole interface. Therefore, trade marks and designs can be considered as complimentary rights for protecting a user interface.

Especially in the UK, obtaining registered design protection can be cost-efficient and straight forward. It is certainly worth considering what aspects of your user interfaces may be protectable.