The scheme came about because of a feeling that although our manufacturers were strong in technology, the design of goods was poor – especially in comparison with items imported from the Continent. In response, a Select Committee of MPs was set up in 1835 to hear evidence and to arrive at recommendations. When they reported a year later, one of their main findings was that it should be made worthwhile for industry to employ qualified designers. They had been told that pirating of designs was a problem, and suggested a law ought to be passed to prevent designs being copied so quickly.
It took until 1842 for a system to be implemented that everyone was happy with. But from then on anyone wanting to register a design paid a fee to the government, and their product could then carry a diamond-shape mark showing it was protected from being copied for up to three years. There was a fine of as much as £30 for those found guilty of copying such an item whilst the protection was in force.
In its first full year of operation, 1843, just over 8 thousand designs were registered. Once established the scheme began to grow. In 1883 registrations exceeded 16½ thousand, so a simplified version was introduced. The department that administered the system had always allocated numbers internally to each design. Therefore from 1884 the distinctive registered design mark was dropped in favour of a similar sequence of numbers, starting at 1 again on 1st January. The scheme still exists in this form today, though the number of applications per year has fallen back roughly to the level of 1843 – evidence of the growth in imports in the 20th century.
The wording of the 1842 Design Registration Act carefully described thirteen classes of material, represented on the registered design mark in roman numerals, from I (metal) to XIII (lace). Class IV was ceramic, which is what this website is about. But it’s worth remembering that pottery manufacture accounted for only a fraction of the designs registered. The really big user of the scheme was the textile industry; the number of registrations per year for printed patterns on cloth often exceeding those for ceramic by one hundred times. However, the printed mark on these patterned cloths was always on the selvage – the edge lost when garments are made up – so it’s rarely obvious that a design is in fact registered.
Like most manufacturers, potters had no appropriate way to protect their designs before 1842. Sometimes modelled-in-the-round stoneware jugs, appear with the words “Published By” marked on them, together with the maker’s name and a date. This shows they were registered under the Sculpture Act of 1797, which offered protection for around fourteen years, but was never meant for household items of this kind and probably would not have stood up in court.
The system implemented in 1842 did away with the need for potters and others to put their trust in inappropriate legislation. More importantly though, it recognised applied art for the first time alongside fine art and mechanical invention as an aspect of intellectual property - an attitude which seems natural to us today. And the freedom it gave to manufacturers to invent new designs for all sections of the marketplace helped create not only the prosperous exporting nation of the late 19th century, but an eclectic taste which is almost now regarded as a national trait.