Designs in China (where they are called “design patents”) are protected under the Patent Law of the People’s Republic of China. This legal text entered into force in 1985 and was reformed in 1992, 2000 and 2008.

On 1 June 2021 a fourth reform will enter into force, with important amendments regarding designs. Indeed, it was necessary to update some aspects of industrial design protection in China in order to, among other purposes, bring them into line with the industrial design protection systems of the world’s main IP Offices. It will thus facilitate protection for foreign designs in China, as well as enhancing protection for the designs of Chinese applicants in other countries and at other IP Offices.

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This reform should also be regarded as part of China’s preparations to join the Hague System for protection of international designs, given that following the accession of the EUIPO, South Korea, USA and Japan, China is the only one of the countries of the IP5 (which includes the world’s five largest IP Offices) that is not yet a member.

It is also important not to overlook the global importance of China in terms of the number of design applications filed. Over the past few years, the CNIPA has been the Patent Office that has received by far the largest number of design applications. For example, in both 2018 and 2019 there were more than 700,000 design applications in China, which accounted for more than 50% of all design applications worldwide.

The main changes that will affect designs in China can be summarised as follows:

1. Extension of the legal lifetime of designs to 15 years

Article 42(1) of the Patent Law extends the legal lifetime from 10 to 15 years, always calculated from the filing date of the design application in China.

This extension of the term of protection of designs in China is due to the Hague Agreement, which requires that the period of protection granted by contracting States for national designs must be a minimum of 15 years.

2. Possibility of design protection for parts of a product

Article 2(4) of the Patent Law has been amended to include in the definition of “design” the possibility that it refers to “the whole or part” of a product.

This amendment allows the scope of protection of designs to be expanded to include partial designs or designs of a part of a product.

This new provision will, for example, enable more secure protection for the design of a part of a product, without the need to protect the design of the whole product. Currently it is necessary to depict the whole product with solid lines. However, after the reform it will be possible to show with solid lines only the part that is to be protected and with broken lines those parts of the product for which protection is not sought.

Moreover, this new possibility of protection for partial designs or for designs of a part of a product is expected to encourage the filing of new design applications, thereby enhancing protection against possible infringers. Indeed, following the reform it will only be necessary that the protected part (for example, the sole of a shoe or the handle of a tool) has been copied, and not the whole product, in order to be able to take action against possible infringements.

This provision will help to bring practice in China into line with that of the other IP5 countries, given that in all of those countries it is currently possible to protect parts of a product.

3. Possibility of claiming domestic priority for designs

Article 29(2) of the Patent Law introduces the possibility of claiming the domestic priority of an earlier design application in China, within a term of 6 months, in order to permit the filing of an improved subsequent design application.

Under the current system, if an applicant files a design application in China and the design undergoes improvements or modifications, it is necessary to file a new design application. If the improved design differs in relatively minor aspects, the new application for the design would be vulnerable due to the existence of the first application.

With the introduction of the possibility of claiming the domestic priority of designs in China, such adverse situations are avoided, given that once the design is created, the applicant can file an initial design application to obtain an earlier filing date and then improve the design in the 6 months following the filing of the initial application, claiming the priority of the same.

In summary, the reform of the system for protection of industrial designs in China is an important step forward that will help to encourage innovation and improve legal certainty in the field of design. Other potential changes, such as extending the possibility of multiple design applications, or establishing a substantive examination or searches for earlier designs during prosecution, have not been included. Perhaps we will see these changes in a future reform.

Author: Pedro Saturio

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