Design Detectives was set up in 1989 to create, locate and protect intellectual property. Since then, its founders have decided that they prefer to be known as DDg: 'Design Detectives is a great name, but some people think we are something to do with industrial espionage,' says its principal, Pauline Amphlett.
Ms Amphlett, who has a background in the design industry, says that at the time there was little information available to designers and others in the creative industries who were developing new names, packaging or identities for their clients.
'They didn't know if the new name or logo they had worked on already existed and was owned by someone else. Often their background research involved sending out a secretary to have a quick scout around the trade mark registry,' she says.
DDg aims to guide clients through the minefield of UK trade mark registration. Company names, brand names and combinations of words that make up an identifiable slogan may be registered and are protectable. But at present the shape and design of packaging cannot.
This has resulted in a spate of legal cases over the copyright of packaging designs. Three years ago, the biscuit maker McVitie sought an injunction against a rival company, Burton, which it alleged had copied its packaging for Jaffa Cakes. McVitie was unsuccessful.
And last May, Boots failed in an attempt to force its rival, Superdrug, to remove its suntan product, Solait, from store shelves. Boots claimed that Solait was a copy of its own Soltan brand.
However, shapes, sounds and even smells of packaging may become protectable if a new EU directive, which aims to harmonise trade mark legislation across Europe, is passed this year. Ms Amphlett says the legislation will 'make the job easier, but there will also be a wider range of areas that need to be investigated'.
One of DDg's key tasks for its clients is to check whether a name or trade mark already exists; whether there are any similar ones already registered; whether there are any pending applications from rival companies; and whether there is any danger of the client infringing another registered mark.
Ms Amphlett says that this is particularly important in fiercely competitive markets, such as telecommunications, where companies are rushing to register names for new mobile telecommunication systems.
DDg also compiles 'look-see' reports, which show what other companies' logos and trade marks actually look like. If a company is developing a new product or corporate identity, DDg can ensure that its logo and image does not replicate what is already on the market somewhere in the world.
Ms Amphlett says she and her partner, Jonathan Mercer, have recently produced a report on all the beer brands worldwide that use a sun logo. In addition, they have collated 800 telecoms logos from around the world that feature an image of the globe.
DDg also undertakes some real detective work. One of its luckiest cases involved a leading department store, where Ms Amphlett saw a rail of jackets remarkably similar to those of a designer she knew, with exclusive collections in the US and Europe.
She bought the jacket and sent it to the designer. It had been copied from a collection stolen two years earlier in London. The copy came from a company in the US that had had it manufactured in Taiwan. Ms Amphlett did further investigations and found similar merchandise on offer in another leading multiple in the North-east.
DDg warned the distributor about infringement of copyright. The goods were withdrawn from sale and DDg is currently representing the designer, who is pursuing her case in the US.
Aside from its trade mark and copyright investigations, Ms Amphlett offers designers and their clients an 'inspirational archive'. This is a vast library of information detailing the meanings of colours, images and symbols in different cultures, so that companies can avoid offending consumers in overseas markets.
'I've spent years finding out about the curious, the trivial and the downright barmy. Companies are always looking for a unique angle to give it them edge and we try to provide the information to identify that edge,' she says.
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