Wearable tech IP essentials

The trend for wearable electronics is on the rise, but what are the IP implications? Jonathan Jackson, D Young & Co LLP offers some answers.

The link between fashion and technology has been long established. This trend was evident over thirty years ago when the Walkman was the latest 'must have' high tech product. A few years ago, white ear buds associated with the iPod became a fashion statement. More recently, Beats headphones are the latest gadget wear. Many technology companies have identified this trend and have started developing so-called wearable technology. Much of this technology is designed for style as much as function. It is predicted that by 2016 we will buy nearly 93 million wearable devices a year. Many of these wearable technology products interact with other technology products such as smartphones. As wearable technology is designed to look cool and be desired by tech-savvy consumers, these products will be sold at a premium price. Manufacturers therefore need to consider the Intellectual Property available to protect their products. Registered designs Registered designs protect the appearance of a particular product or graphical user interface (GUI). In electronics, the distinctive appearance of a particular product or of a GUI is sometimes crucial to the success of that product. Indeed, such is the importance of design in electronics, Steve Jobs at Apple considered Jonathan Ive (who designed the iPod, iPhone, iPad and iOS 7 amongst others) as his "spiritual partner at Apple". Apple filed Registered Designs for the shape of an iPad, iPhone and associated GUIs. Apple then sued Samsung alleging that their Galaxy Tablet range infringed these designs. These designs took centre stage in the recent global battle between Apple and Samsung. In the area of wearable technology, the appearance of a product will be, arguably, even more important. This will be carefully considered by manufacturers. However, in order to protect this distinctive appearance, manufacturers need to equally consider protecting the appearance using registered designs. Patents Patents protect the way in which a product operates. Specifically, a patent protects the way in which the product solves a technical problem. In the field of wearable technology, there are a number of issues to consider. Firstly, although it is not possible to use patents to protect the appearance of a product (that is the purpose of registered designs), the wearable technology will usually include sensors measuring certain parameters such as a pedometer in a Sony SmartBand or location of the user in a Nike SmartWatch. These sensors may be capable of patent protection if the sensors are improvements over known sensors. For example, if the sensors consume less battery power or are smaller than known sensors. Secondly, many wearable technology devices, in use, communicate information with other connected devices, such as a smartphone. The smartphone runs a dedicated app, usually produced by the manufacturer, in order to communicate with the wearable device. Therefore, the manufacturer will wish to protect both the wearable technology and separately the app. This will stop other manufacturers copying aspects of the app. However, in certain instances, it may not be possible to protect the app separately. Although beyond the scope of this article, in order for an app to be protected in its own right, the app must solve a technical problem. Examples of such technical problem include communicating with the wearable technology in a more efficient manner. An article examining this in more detail is provided at www.dyoung.com/article-bigdata. Trade marks A particular brand name or logo used to market the wearable technology product can be protected as a trade mark. Registered trade marks ensure that the goodwill and business reputation built up under that brand name or logo is protected in relation to specified goods or services. As wearable technology contains features that relate to both fashion and function, it will be important to ensure that trade mark protection is obtained for both aspects. For example, Smart Glasses would require protection both for the glasses themselves and the display device technology. Conclusion Wearable technology will provide many opportunities for technology companies over the next few years. In order to secure their market share, it is important for technology companies to protect every aspect of their wearable technology; from the appearance of the product, the way in which their product operates, to any branding associated with their product. This synergistic approach will protect the market should their competitors get too close or should any copy-cat products appear. If you require any further advice on this topic, please contact the author. For more information please contact Jonathan Jackson, Partner on 020 7269 8550 or email jaj@dyoung.co.uk