How can you protect your work?

Our recent piece on how designers can protect their intellectual property, which followed a Designer Breakfast event on the same issue, led to several readers asking for practical advice on copyright and IP in design.


We’ve gathered together some tips from trade bodies and legal professionals on how to protect your designs and intellectual property.

Ask for advice. Membership body Anti-Copying in Design works to combat design theft, and offers services including legal advice and IP trackers. The Design Business Association – also a membership group – holds case studies and examples of contracts. The Innovation Bank, which is operated in partnership with Creative Barcode offers a forum for IP holders to trade IP, while the Intellectual Property Office is the official Government body for granting IP rights in the UK, and offers online information and patent service searches. In addition, Calvert Solicitors says, ‘Designers should not be frightened of approaching lawyers and seeing legal advice. It is not expensive, can safeguard against major or unexpected consequences and can help maximise earning potential from their work.’

• Copyright your work. Using the © symbol or simply writing ‘copyright’ along with the name of the copyright owner and year of publication on the work will, says Calvert, draw attention to the fact that the author asserts owner of this copyright. ACID chief executive Dids Macdonald says, ‘If you don’t want your work to be copied – say so.’ She suggests writing this on your website and on work.

• Use a non-disclosure agreement or impose confidentiality by other means. This is especially useful in a pitch situation. An NDA worded with the client will, Calvert says, prevent the client from releasing details about the pitch work, or using it commercially. Although Calvert points out that many clients are unwilling to enter into NDA agreements as they don’t want to be subject to restrictions on using the designer’s work. Calvert says that by creating a relationship of confidentiality, the designer can protect themselves should the client disclose or use the work.

• Use unregistered design rights or registerable IP rights. Unregistered design rights exist independently of copyright and focus on the shape or configuration of a product, rather then documents or artistic or literary work. Registerable IP rights, which can include trademarks and patents, give the registrant a monopoly right on the work.

• Track your IP. There are several services to help you keep track of your IP and confidential information. ACID’s IP tracker is an electronic process of tracking delivery of IP-led and confidential information and costs £5 per sending (£3.50 for ACID members). ACID also operates the Design Data Bank – free for members – which holds dated evidence of the origination of designs, pitches and tenders. The Creative Barcode service, which launched in 2010, offers physical barcodes that the designer can attach to their work, which can be tracked through to commercialisation. The barcodes cost £30 for five.

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  • Maxine Horn November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Whilst the subject of Intellectual Property is incredible important for creative firms – it is not as simple as this article appears to propose.

    A couple of corrections – has not been run by British Design Innovation since early 2011 – in fact it has just been re-launched in partnership with Creative Barcode

    And Creative Barcode is the first innovation in the intellectual property system for more than three decades. It is the only mechanism that protects ‘innovation and creative concepts and business ideas’. No other mechanism does.

    Designers make the mistake time and again that © copyright protects their pre-commercialised ideas / concepts when it does not. You cannot protect an idea.

    Agencies who pitch and do not have any protection in place are very vulnerable.

    Non disclosure agreements (NDA’S) are rarely signed by client companies – & they are almost unheard of during pitches – unless it is one issued by the client company to protect their own information/confidentiality.

    Try asking a client company to sign your own NDA – and see how far you get.

    Marketing and Brand Managers will not sign them as to do so would involve their legal department and several weeks or so delay in engaging a design firm or running a pitch.

    Thanks for the mention of Creative Barcode – it is however a bit inaccurate.

    The CB system enables the users to create numerically unique barcodes embedded with their ownership and contact details which are applied to all files, written or visual, associated with the project (one barcode per project which travels with all documents and is visible & track able throughout) –

    Files are sent through the file transfer system where a one page, legally binding trust charter agreement is accepted before download.

    It is endorsed by the World Intellectual Property Organisation – and is far more than just selling and attaching barcodes. The barcodes are simply the ownership and authentication element. See

    ACID have some good contracts that can be used as a starting point for any formal contract negotiation.

    I hope that the subject gets more air time but more time and accurate research needs to be undertaken otherwise creative firms will continue to be confused and given poor information based on assumptions and lack of understanding of the realities agencies and their clients face.

    The complexity and cost of IP protection for the creative sector across the board needs urgent revision. Creative Barcode is a very good starting point

  • Paul Mellor November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This is not ‘practical advice’ to help designers navigate their way through the tricky waters of IP.

    Perhaps you should have asked a few agency owners to find out their approach to IP and the solutions they use. This is just a bunch of links to third parties – albeit as helpful as they are.

    Intellectual Property is one of the biggest issues that designers of all disciplines face, I would be willing to contribute to a more extensive article/resource.

  • Nigel Calvert November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I was a panellist at Designer Breakfasts on Tuesday and of course recognise this article is just scratching the surface.

    On Tuesday I pointed to a number of routes available to designers in the hope of stimulating discussion in the industry. IP is still unfortunately not as high on many designers’ priorities as it should be.

    Also on Tuesday I acknowledged the difficulty with NDAs, but explained that a designer can create a confidential relationship in other ways, for example by making it clear in his presentation that the work cannot be exploited commercially, and by making the same thing clear on any materials. This can be a far more palatable way of imposing confidentiality.

    Maxine’s comments are interesting but, on copyright at least, not entirely accurate; an idea per se is not protectable, however once recorded it may be. This was my starting point on Tuesday.

    I also note that the ACID IP Tracker and the Creative Bar Codes are useful developments but they too have their limitations; for example the Creative Bar Codes are still dependant on a legally binding agreement.

    Every designer should understand the tools available to them. In many cases the best solution will be to employ a combination of these tools; it would be too simplistic to describe any one of them as a complete solution.

    I agree with Paul that this is a big issue and that more needs to be done. We should act together to keep IP issues such as these on the agenda, make sure designers understand their options and where they can go for advice and assistance.

    Perhaps, as Susan Griggs suggested on Tuesday, designers should follow other creative industries by having an industry standard and practice for dealing with IP issues…

  • Caroline November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    What I think we all mean is tighter rules on copyright, legislation to make it enforceable and penalties for misuse. Surely this is what the DBA and Design Council should be working on with government?

  • Maxine Horn November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    @ Nick Calvert
    Thanks Nick – and I agree that once recorded formally ideas have protection – which is why CB includes a legally binding element.

    But it is two way and only has two warranties.

    1. the Creator warrants to their client /prospective client that their work is authentic, owned by them and theirs to disclose

    2. the client / recipient warrants to the Creator not to utilise any works without their permission

    Simple rules that no party in 18 months has ever breeched nor refused to accept.

    And I agree that it works hand in hand with other forms of protection as and when needed.

    But rarely is an agency in a position to register copyright (trademarks etc) until such time as they have completed works.

    The point is to establish rules of ownership at the outset to avoid misunderstandings arising later. Whether by dual signed letter, terms of business or Creative Barcode

    Many agencies have seen the results of work entered for a pitch or tender used without permission nor payment

    Paul Mellor is an avid Creative Barcode user – so good to see him coming in to this discussion

    @ anonymous – the entire UK IP system has been under review since November 2010 – and the Design Council hosted a few debates last year.

    But neither the DC nor DBA are in a position to enforce tighter IP legislation – that’s a matter for the legal system and it takes 5 years or more to change a law

    And even with tighter laws – agencies can’t easily afford to enforce their rights as the legal costs can be eyewatering.

    So simple, ethical, fair, non-complex and cost efficient mechanisms are required – which is exactly what Creative Barcode is.

    The people who can make the most difference are agencies themselves by taking some form of responsibility for their and their clients IP by simply having an IP policy and using whichever mechanisms suit their business best.

    But as ever design firms appear to want to make it someone else’s responsibility – it no-one else’s responsibility but their own.

    The tools are available

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