World Intellectual Property Organization

Industrial Designs Symposium in Argentina

June 2007

A classic. The LC4 chaise longue (Cassina I Maestri Collection) designed by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand. Cassina now has exclusive reproduction rights. (Courtesy of Cassina)
A classic. The LC4 chaise longue (Cassina I Maestri Collection) designed by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand. Cassina now has exclusive reproduction rights. (Courtesy of Cassina)

Why do businesses invest in design, and how can they protect their investment? Why register industrial designs? How can design protection best be obtained in different countries? These questions and many more were addressed at an international symposium in Buenos Aires on March 20 and 21, jointly organized by WIPO and the National Institute for Industrial Property (INPI), Argentina.

Buenos Aires, the first city ever to be designated a UNESCO City of Design in recognition of its vibrant design industry, was an ideal choice for this international symposium. Attended by designers, lawyers and officials from IP offices from five continents, the Symposium examined current issues and future trends for the protection of industrial designs. It also featured the work of leading Argentinean design businesses, represented by three very different companies, Ferrum, Ruptura and Estudio Cabeza (below).

Industrial design, which brings together the functional and aesthetic features of an object, spans a range of disciplines. The International Council of Societies of Industrial Designs stresses the centrality of design from both an industrial and cultural-sociological point of view, describing it as “a creative activity whose aim is to establish the multi-faceted qualities of objects, processes, services and their systems in whole life cycles.” Design, the Council concludes, is “the central factor of innovative humanization of technologies, and the crucial factor of cultural and economic exchange.” 

WIPO’s work on industrial design, from an intellectual property (IP) angle, focuses on creating and maintaining an international legal framework conducive to protecting the rights of designers and rights-holders. This is a complex area, with different options and schemes for protecting designs ranging from sui generis design laws, unregistered designs, and design patents, through to copyright and trademarks.

Industrial design or applied art?

Indeed, hardly any other subject matter within the realm of IP is as difficult to categorize as industrial design. And this has significant implications for the means and terms of its protection. If the design of a given object can be categorized as a work of applied art, for example, then it may be eligible for protection under copyright law, with the term of protection going much beyond the standard 10 or 15 years under registered design law.

A classic illustration dates back to 1929, when the Swiss architect and designer Charles Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, developed a series of pieces of furniture, each of which was conceived purely as the concrete expression of its own function. Designers from this school focused on the concept of “use” and the necessities inherent within it. The object itself, devoid of any ornament, derives its beauty from its essential nature.

It was more than 30 years before these items were produced industrially, and more than 60 years before the question arose as to whether the chairs were works of applied art. This resulted in, among others, a landmark case under German copyright law1. An important feature of this judgement was that the criteria which determined whether or not a given object could be considered as a work of applied art for the purposes of copyright protection should not depend on the purpose of the object. 

Protecting designs

Today, design is often at the heart of successful brand identity, and provides a high degree of product recognition for consumers. The Apple i-Pod, or car radiator grilles such as DaimlerChrysler’s distinctive Jeep® grille design, are just two of many examples of businesses leveraging well-established designs on to future product generations. 

Successful designs, however, are also a magnet for imitators. The moment a popular design comes on the market, it will be copied. Yet, it remains the case that many designers and companies are not well informed as to the need to seek active protection, nor of the different possibilities available. Legislators are addressing this concern. Among the new ways of obtaining rapid and cost effective design protection that the Symposium addressed is the un-registered design protection scheme of the European Union (EU). With the first successful infringement cases now being brought under EU unregistered design law, the Symposium heard about the increasing use of this relatively new right by designers and businesses.

The need for an international design registration system in which a significant number of countries participate was apparent throughout the Symposium, and the Hague System transpired as the natural model. This international registration system, administered by WIPO, has been in existence since 1925 and currently covers 47 countries. It offers a simplified, cost-effective way to obtain industrial design registration in multiple countries through the filing of a single application.

Good product design, where technical innovation, functional superiority and esthetic appeal are mutually reinforcing, is an ever more key element for successful consumer products. The Buenos Aires Symposium left no doubt that design is one IP asset that will only get hotter.

Ferrum

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Founded 95 years ago, Ferrum designs and produces elegant bathroom and sanitary ware. The company’s marketing strategy stresses cutting edge designs combined with the reputation for quality of its long established name. In its industrial design team, skilled designers work together with specialists in engineering, marketing and computer modeling.
Ruptura

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Ruptura aims to generate new business opportunities by questioning the status quo, and developing new and better ways of doing things. The company name, explains director Washington Perez, derives from the “rupture” with existing assumptions, “such as occurred when someone first asked if a candle was the only way to make light, or a sail the only way to cross the sea.” Ruptura’s toddler shoes break with convention by creating colorful images on the under-soles. These reflect the perspective of small children, who spend more time on the floor with the bottoms of their shoes displayed than standing.
Estudio Cabeza

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The Estudio Cabeza design studio creates contemporary urban and institutional furniture, such as the benches, ramps and bins in Buenos Aires’s Puerto Madero district and other public spaces. Wood, steel and concrete are given ergonomic forms and clean lines, resulting in hard-wearing items which are in harmony with their surroundings. The multi-award-winning studio, which publicizes its use of design protection, also licenses its work to European and Latin-American firms.


Marcus Höpperger, WIPO's Trademarks, Industrial Designs and Geographical Indications Sector , Law and International Classifications Division

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1. Decision I ZR 15/85 of December 10, 1986, which has been published in GRUR 1987, at page 903 ("Le Corbusier-Möbel")

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