Japan ensures brands are protected by providing a thorough protection system for custom product designs. From whole designs to partial designs to design sets, designers and companies alike are protected against infringement from third parties.
Scope of Protection
Japan’s Design Law provides legal protection for the form, pattern or color of an object.
- Visual appeal to aesthetic sense
Objects that are not readily recognizable to the naked eye do not qualify for protection.
- Industrial usability
The design must be duplicable via a mechanical or hand-based process and must be able to be mass-produced.
- Visual appeal to aesthetic sense
- Examination Criteria
The design must be completely new and no identical or similar design can have existed before.
- Ease of creation
No design that is adjudged to be lacking creativity will be registered, regardless of whether or not it is new.
Any duplicates of or similar designs to pre-existing designs do not qualify for protection.
The following designs violating public interest will not be registered:
- Designs that may violate public order and morals.
- Designs that may cause confusion with other products or brands.
- Designs of minimal form and content.
- One design per application
Each design must have its own application. However, within certain criteria, a design set may be submitted with one application.
Design applications for registration are processed on a first come, first serve basis. If one person submits multiple forms of the same design, then an original and secondary design will be designated and both versions will be registered.
Terms of Protection
Design protections begin at the time of registration and last for 20 years. However, there is an annual fee to be paid to maintain the protections. Although protection rights lapse after 20 years, notoriety and international recognition can grant permanent protection of a design under the Unfair Competition Prevention Law.
A Protection System Unique to Japan
Japan’s Design Law provides a very unique system of design protections:
- Related Design System
Designs directly registered as well as similar designs related to a certain object and filed in a certain period are protected under Japanese Design Law. If advance confirmation of a similar design is needed, the design can be registered as a “similar design.”
- Design of a Set of Objects
Japan’s Design Law required design applications and registration follow a “one-design-per-object principle.” This exception allows for single objects that can be logically linked together, such as silverware items, be registered as a single design of a set of objects. This approach can cut costs greatly.
- Secret Designs
Registered designs are published in the Design Gazette: however, the “Secret Design System” allows to keep a registered design a secret for a certain period of time. Due to the transient nature of many industries, this system protects the rights of the design-owners for a certain period of time. However, this system limits attorneys’ options for infringement lawsuits, so the Secret Design system is rarely used.
- Partial Designs
The partial design system allows parts of shapes or forms with distinct characteristics to be registered. This system allows for partial copyright infringements to be pursued in the courts and is one of the most important aspects of Japan’s Design Protection system.
- Protection of Screen Designs
Under some conditions, screen designs (designs of operation screens for DVD recorders, dialing screens on a cell phone, etc.) are protected as designs that are a part of products.
Design protections cover product designs, general branding, and the visual presentation of a product. There are a number of protection systems that allow designers to protect themselves from infringement, protect the details of their designs, and even cut registration costs. The beauty of Japanese Design Law is that even the custom digital screens are protected, which means that designers are not limited to print designs and physical products when it comes to protection of their work. As long as all the criteria are met, every detail of a custom product design is covered under the Japanese Design Law.
Protection of Design FAQ
How do I know that my design is unique and new?
The Japan Patent Office archives all the registered trademarks in the special catalogs. Once you have an idea of what your trademark could be, your preliminary idea can be compared to existing ones. Thus, you will know if your design is original enough not to be rejected during the application process itself.
Can I use a combination of features to make a trademark?
Yes, you can. Your trademark can appeal to one or multiple senses. You can combine motion and sound for example. During the registration process, all aspects of your trademark will be described in details to include all of its aspects.
What if I want to register a design of something that is not a form, pattern or color of an object?
While form, pattern, or color of an object are the most common to be registered for the protection of an object, in our introductory guide to Japan’s trademark system we discuss some other possibilities. While, for example, a motion or a sound is not yet common, there are cases where these features were registered as “design” in a broader sense of a word.
However, remember that a trademark itself and the objects, products, or services associated with it are two different things. If you want to gain protection for a non-standard feature make sure to consult the patent attorney about it.
What laws regulate the protection of design besides the Design Law?
The full list with explanations about the application of specific laws can be found in our Trademark Legislation Guide.
When does a design fall under the legislative protection?
Your design is protected from the moment it is officially registered with the authorities. In Japan, it is not enough to use (apply) the design to activate its protection. This is an important difference between Japan and many other countries when it comes to the protection of the intellectual property.
Even if you intend to keep your design off-public eyes for a while, it is still recommended to register it to gain protection in cases of infringement.