Legally protect your designs

 1 July 2013

How can you legally protect your designs? Maxine Horn, CEO of intellectual property organisation Creative Barcode, gave her view at the New Designers Start Up Day, an event run by The Design Trust.

"Most people think that anything that can be digitised and downloaded is free or should be free."

Creative Barcode is a digital intellectual property app that enables you to protect your work, to attribute your work and create unique QR codes that are embedded with your metadata.

"Intellectual property can be very positive and empowering."

“When you post work on places like Facebook or Pinterest, the QR codes travel with them. This means that when they get swept up by search engines and divorced from your website, you can still be credited as the owner and contacted for permission to use them.

“Importantly, this stops your images from becoming what is known as ‘orphan works’, meaning ‘creator unknown’, which could lead to your work being used by others without your permission or payment.”

Ensuring designs are marked

“It’s really important that your works are marked, like a fine artist would sign a canvas.

“Creative Barcode also has a file transfer service, where you send your work to any third party that has requested it, and they accept a trust charter agreement before they can download the files.

“It’s really fast, really simple and it’s a step in front of the intellectual property system. So it’s the first stage that everybody should be able to do.”

Knowing what can be protected

“It’s a myth that ideas can be protected: they can’t. It’s not an idea per se which can be protected, but the execution of that idea.

“I think equipping yourself with a basic understanding of things like patent and copyright, and what you can and can’t do, is empowering and important. It's actually quite easy to do as there is so much free advice available and free events.

“If you know nothing and don’t take any responsibility, you’re actually looking at it in quite a negative way."

Being positive about intellectual property

“Intellectual property can be very positive and empowering. It’s your natural right to own your work and be recognised for the work that you have created.

"People often feel that the ‘ethics police’ should exist somewhere: there aren’t any."

“As a basic starting point, aim to make sure that you are always recognised and attached to that piece of work.

“Build up your profile and do as much as you can to ensure that others know and associate you with your work.

“Engage with the other parts of the intellectual property system when the time and opportunity is right, but in the first instance at least attribute yourself to your work.”

Educating yourself on intellectual property

"Creative individuals often feel that they are selling creativity and time when what they are actually doing is creating and selling intellectual property

“Look at it as a right to earn a living and decide on how you want to earn your income. It might be through royalties, it could be licence agreements – that’s all about intellectual property.

“People only tend to call a lawyer when something’s gone wrong, when someone’s ripped off their work.

“They often feel that the ‘ethics police’ should exist somewhere. There aren’t any ethics police. This means you need to take responsibility from the outset to communicate your ownership and usage terms."

What lawyers will look for

“I know about the angst that you can feel when someone has taken your work without permission.

"Most creatives aren’t solely driven by money, but by reputation and creativity – so you get that angst, and that feeling ‘that’s unethical’.

"There needs to be some education of consumers, but designers and creators need to help."

“That’s not what lawyers look at. They look at: what usage terms did you communicate and what agreement did you have? And if the answer is nothing, you may as well stop at that point and save some money.

“As a minimum, you should always have something in writing, however basic it is.”

Attributing your work

“Think about the amount of images out there. Most people think that anything that can be digitised and downloaded is free or should be free. Or they don’t know the difference between what is free and what isn’t.

“There needs to be some education of consumers, but designers and creators need to help communicate ownership and usage terms if they want to be part of the solution.

“If you don’t assert authorship over your works, or use identifiers, such as Creative Barcode, or put anything in writing or contracts, then you’re not helping anybody to know what to do and to do the right thing.

“The whole thing hinges on education, and everybody, including clients, are part of that process. 

“All parts of the value chain need to brush up on understanding that they’re part of that solution, and what it is that they need to do to be a positive part of it."

3 tips for protecting your work

1. Whatever you do, attribute yourself to your work

“This should happen whether you use a third party identifier, such as Creative Barcode, or whether you want to give your work away for free and do it under a creative commons licence.”

2. Start as early as you possibly can

“If your work is infringed, you ideally need something that confirms all the iterations in the journey, which is time-stamped, and ideally held with a trusted third party.

“Whether you register and barcode the works with Creative Barcode, using its file transfer system to safely disclose, or whether you use ACID’s registry and membership services, this is an important step.”

3. Look at intellectual property in a positive way

“Intellectual property can be positive. It’s not all about confrontation and complexity, so don’t go into avoid mode and stick your head in the sand.”

Find out more about how to protect your designs at Creative Barcode. For more business advice for designer-makers, including the full video of this event, become a member of The Design Trust.


Do you have a story to share about intellectual property and design? Do you think you can protect designs and ideas in a digital age?

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