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Designing GUIs: current treatment of virtual or non-physical designs in Australia

Tyrone Berger

Keywords: design law; Australia; non-physical designs; graphical user interfaces (GUIs); Designs Act 2003 (Cth); harmonization

Virtual or non-physical designs (referred to as ‘graphical user interfaces’ (GUIs) and screen icons) are important design elements in many modern products. The widespread adoption of touch screen technologies, for example, means that software applications running on computer hardware are now used to provide user interface functionality, in some cases even providing an identity for the product. The fact that these visual features are only present when the function is active should not detract from the importance of those features to both the visual appeal and functionality of the device from a user's perspective. In recent years, GUIs and screen icons have been increasingly lodged as registered design applications. However, registrability (in the sense of compliance with substantive design law) is not considered during IP Australia's registration process, and, as such, GUIs and screen icons are appearing on the designs register without undergoing substantive examination. In many cases their status in Australia's designs system is currently uncertain. This article considers the background to this subject in Australia, and suggests how the substantive design law requirements and practice could be recast in light of the increase in non-physical designs being registered. Lastly, some concluding remarks are offered that may go some way towards initiating a broader conversation about the role of design protection in the new ‘experience age’.

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