Keep your paperwork to prevent copycat designers, advises Trunki founder

Children’s suitcase brand Trunki lost a law case last year after it was found rival brand Kiddee had not infringed its copyright. Now, Trunki founder Rob Law offers advice to designers on how they can protect their ideas.

Trunki case © Magmatic Limited

Designers should keep and timestamp all their paperwork and rough sketches to prevent other people copying their work, the founder of children’s suitcase brand Trunki has advised.

Speaking at a panel discussion chaired by copyright specialist law firm Gowling WLG, Rob Law offered advice to product designers on protecting their intellectual property (IP).

Law, who founded suitcase brand Trunki in 2004, lost a legal case last year that was filed against rival brand Kiddee, which was founded in 2013.

Kiddee case © PMS International Limited

Both brands sell children’s pull-along suitcases in the style and shape of animals. A legal case began in 2013, where Law alleged that Trunki’s IP had been infringed but the Supreme Court eventually ruled in 2016 that this was not the case.

This was based on the fact that design rights are intended to protect surface design rather than ideas.

Speaking at the time, Law said the case spelt “uncertainty for designers” and put UK-based designers at a “distinct disadvantage from [our] European counterparts”.

“Don’t be disheartened”

Now, Law has taken a more positive stance, telling designers not to be “disheartened” by the failed case but instead to take as many precautions as possible to prevent copycat designs.

He added that designers should not be scared of sharing their ideas with other professionals and that gathering “feedback” is an essential part of producing a successful product.

“You get your classic shed inventor who won’t tell anyone about their work, but the design process is all about prototyping, getting feedback, improving prototypes, and developing an idea,” he said. “You can never develop an idea if you don’t tell anyone about it. You have to be open.”

In order to protect designs, he said, inventors can protect their ideas by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), and it is also crucial to timestamp design process work and keep rough sketches.

“I keep all my records”

“I kept all my records, so I was able to prove that certain designs had come about through a process,” he said.

One example from the Trunki vs Kiddee legal case where this helped Law was on the central clasp feature of the original suitcase.

“We had an issue with the first version of our clasp where the catches would pop open and I was able to prove that that was my original, unregistered design,” he said. “That was ruled in our favour, so Kiddee decided they weren’t going to pay us a royalty for that feature but were going to redesign it instead.

“They redesigned it badly and have a huge problem with their closing clasp. So little elements like this, if done differently, can result in poor performance of the other product in the market. “

Registered and unregistered design rights

In the UK, designers can either rely on unregistered design rights, which automatically protect designers for a maximum of 10 years, or pay for registered design rights, which are stronger and protect them for 25 years.

Law advised designers to register designs when they can, adding that Trunki “files a registered design for just about everything” now. This acts as an official document that can be recognised by legal bodies in other countries too, he adds.

But whether registering or not, Law says that designers should always keep physical evidence of their processes by saving them on storage devices like USBs and CDs.

“I had old CDs with scanned pieces of paper saved on them,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly when I’d sketched them, but the date of the scan was good enough evidence. Keep all your paperwork.”

ACID’s storage system

He also advised designers to use organisation Anti-Copying in Design (ACID)’s online upload system to protect ideas if they cannot afford registered designs.

The service allows members to upload designs to a confidential database, acting as a time and date stamp if you need to prove when you officially created a concept.

Law adds that designers should try to be quick and stealthy with marketing their product and establishing it, particularly in other countries, as it is a “race against time to prove there’s a commercial appetite, then to raise funds to protect them”.

Law was speaking as part of a panel discussion hosted by Gowling WLG at this year’s London Design Festival.

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