The rise of tech companies, SaaS, apps, the Internet of Things, VR, AR, online advertising and an ever increasing digital and online world means a large portion of companies’ customer-facing environment is now found on screen. A company’s user interface is therefore of ever-increasing importance because using it will often be a consumer’s first interaction with the company, and their first impression of the company may well be formed by such interaction. The use of graphics has become part of the sales pitch, as well as part of the product being offered, and so the appearance and feel of a graphical user interface can hold significant value for a company, which they should consider protecting with intellectual property.

A graphical user interface, GUI, can be considered to be an on-screen display that is shown to or able to be interacted with by a user. While copying and counterfeiting is as much of an issue, if not more, for GUIs than physical products, GUIs are difficult to protect effectively with IP rights typically associated with technology, namely patents. This is in part due to the general statutory exclusion of computer programs from patent protection (though in practice technical “computer inventions” are often patentable).

Looking at other IP rights, copyright is generally useful for protecting the particular code used to generate the GUI, but does not typically extend to providing protection for the appearance of the GUI itself. Meanwhile, trade marks are only likely to be useful for branding and logos embedded in a GUI, not the GUI itself. Registered designs, however, exist to protect the appearance of a product and so are the natural home for GUI IP protection.

Using registered designs to provide IP protection for GUIs is often, and undeservedly, forgotten or dismissed. This could be because GUIs are not considered to be a product by those presenting them to customers, or because the dynamic nature of many GUIs means they are not considered suitable for an IP right that is based on imagery that can only be shown in a static form. However, GUIs are most definitely products whose appearance has value that can be protected, and the right filing strategy can ensure proper protection for dynamic elements and animations within a GUI.

Registered designs can and should be considered for protecting GUIs, both in terms of their overall look and their dynamic nature. Care does need to be taken, however, to ensure the protection offered by the design fits the needs of a business and provides adequate protection. Some tips on how this can be achieved can be found in our guidance on gold standard registered design protection. This includes choices on what images to use; what, if any, colour, shading or tones to include; what should be shown in the images filed (as well as what should not be shown); and how to depict any dynamic elements and transitions. Getting the representations right is crucial for obtaining the best possible protection for any GUI, and is why the advice of a good attorney from the outset can be invaluable.

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