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Graphical user interfaces – an application area on the rise in design protection

28.04.2015
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It is widely known that design rights can be applied to the appearance of a product or a part of a product. Primarily, a design right is indeed used for protecting a tangible product. Over the last few years, a growing trend has been to protect various graphical user interfaces and icons through design protection, since user interface elements provide an excellent tool for distinguishing oneself from competitors.  

The increasing popularity of design rights in user interfaces is, of course, accounted for by the massive introduction of various intelligent devices, all from mobile phones and tablets to different adjusting devices, control panels and smart televisions. The manufacturers want to distinguish themselves from others, and, in addition to the conventional shape of the device, new insights into the appearance of the user interface are essential in protecting the products. 

A Graphical User Interface, or GUI, refers to a manner of using a computer or another intelligent device based on text, images and other user interface elements. It consists of various elements, such as windows, icons, menus, pointing devices and selection buttons, which are also known as WIMP elements. 

Devices fall, user interface elements rise 

More often than not, a useful user interface with its various elements outlives the devices in which it is installed. Take, for instance, the numerous graphical elements of a Windows user interface, or the equivalents of Apple’s.  When the devices’ different models or types or even when operating systems are being reinvented, the graphical appearance of the user interface is often kept unchanged, however. The comfort and familiarity of the old user interface makes it easier to adopt new gadgets. 

Is it possible to protect user interfaces globally? 

Although legislation in different countries has rapidly become more harmonised in design protection issues as well, the situation is still quite far from what applies to trademarks.  Harmonisation of law in different countries aims at both encouraging designers to create new design and supporting general willingness in investing in intellectual property rights. 

As the markets become more globalized, the importance of design rights as well as other intellectual property rights has been emphasized.  Even if a design as a type of protection is already widely known throughout the world today, the coverage of protection relating to graphical user interfaces, for instance, yet remains unsatisfactory. A further problem has also been presented by several practical issues relating to the images to be accepted in connection with the design protection procedures. 

The need for international protection has resulted in numerous international treaties or agreements concerning intellectual property rights. In designs, the significant milestones have been the EU design right system and the Hague Agreement concerning international registration of industrial designs. In Finland, the Geneva Act of the Hague Agreement became effective on 1 May 2011. Since that date the EU has also entered this system. 

It is essential for the holders of rights that the item for which protection is sought will enjoy protection in the most important market areas. It is already possible to use design rights to protect graphical interfaces in all significant industrialized countries as well as in many other countries, even though specific details still vary nationally. The major markets reside in the United States, Europe, China, Japan, and South Korea. 

Mutual understanding in Europe

The EU territory has paved the way for enabling graphical interfaces and icons to be protected through registration of designs. In Europe, under the Community Design system, there is a general consensus on the ways in which graphical interfaces should be protected through designs. A single application in Europe can be used for applying for protection for several items, which means that one application can include a multitude of ever-changing display view variations, for instance. 

Previously, the regulations concerning the legal protection of designs differed from one another considerably even in the different member states of the European Union. These differences were, however, considered to distort competition and thus influence activity on the internal market. The Commission of the European Communities presented a preliminary proposal for a harmonious system for design rights in the European Community as early as in 1991. 

Entering into force on 6 March 2002, the Community design decree lays down regulations on both registered and unregistered design rights. The existing national design protection systems remained alongside with the new system. In practice, however, the launch of the Community design decree basically killed the national register of designs in Finland at least.  

Article 3 of the decree discloses a definition of a design, enabling all elements of graphical user interfaces to be protected by a Community design. In practice, EUIPO, the office responsible for the registration of Community designs, is also very flexible as to the nature of the images that can be used for applying for design protection. However, it is important to choose the images carefully in order to make possible further applications with them as trouble-free as possible. 

China most recently to join design protection 

It became possible to protect graphical user interface components in China as of 1 May 2014. In principle, the user interface images should be presented as a part of the product. The Chinese Patent Office has released an almost 40-page detailed guide to further define the nature of the images that will be acceptable when applying for protection for graphical user interfaces.  

Japan, the land of design, dynamically involved

In Japan, too, it is possible to apply for design protection for graphical user interfaces. Since 2011 an applicant in Japan has been allowed to incorporate more than one item for which design protection is sought into one and the same application. This also enables dynamic display views to be described. In the true Asian style, the instructions as to the nature of the images are also extremely detailed in Japan as well.

USA is a veteran of user interface elements 

In the US, the protection of graphical user interface images has been possible already since the 1980’s. In 2006 it became possible to protect dynamic display views.

More and more frequently designs are also used as weapons in business, just like patents. In the famous ”IP war” between Apple and Samsung, the display views protected by design rights played a critical role.