Packaging delivers to consumers powerful visual messages by which products are made immediately recognisable. As we walk down a supermarket aisle, browse through the pages of a magazine or check out a website we are bombarded with visual cue after visual cue. Our brains respond to these by making instant associations between familiar combinations of shapes and colours and related products and manufacturers.
The appearance of the whole or a part of a packaged product resulting from the features of the lines, contours, colours, shape, texture and/or materials of the packaging itself and/or its ornamentation can be protected by design rights, provided that it is novel and has individual character – that is, provided that it has on an informed user an impression different from other designs available to the public.
However, it’s not only looks and visuals that make packaging a powerful commercial asset. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, and less visible packaging features can often increase the value of a product as well as give manufacturers an edge over their competitors even in particularly crowded fields.
Packaging serves multiple technical purposes, from protecting and preserving the packaged products to facilitating their storage and transportation. It is without a doubt a vehicle for conveying information to the consumer, such as in the food industry, where containers make consumers available of ingredients, nutritional value, best-before dates, and so on. With products like medical devices, that undergo sterilisation and are then handled and shipped prior to use, packaging needs to be resistant to shocks, puncturing, tearing and changes in temperature and humidity.
With consumers keen on innovation and appreciative of novelty, the packaging industry must keep up with – and even try to anticipate – changes in consumer trends. At the same time, manufacturers need to be on the look-out for packaging solutions that can better adapt to evolving government regulations and growing environmental concerns, ideally while at the same time providing consumers with increased convenience and optimising production efficiency.
Thus, while there is some relevant technology dating back a hundred years or more, there is also plenty of innovation going on in the packaging field. Over the past few decades one of the most significant change has had to do with the relative proportions of the materials most commonly used for packaging food. Most noticeably, glass has been virtually replaced by plastics for packing water and carbonated soft drinks. New frontiers are, however, constantly being explored with manufacturers seeking viable lightweight alternatives to conventional PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. Some have been pushing the boundaries, such as by proposing the use of PET even with products that had proudly resisted the inexorable advance of plastics, like with the introduction on the market of a pasteurisable, lightweight PET bottle for beer. Others have developed a paper-based bag of the type typically used for packaging cement and other powdery products, that is designed to absorb less moisture than conventional bags, such as to keep high tensile strength even in a wet environment, which makes the innovative bag effectively rain-resistant. New solutions have also been developed for extending the use of PET to the manufacture of containers with unusual shapes, which require specifically tailored production processes adapted to ensure an optimised material distribution during a blow-moulding operation.
Sustainability is another key issue in the packaging industry, with lots of attention being paid to use of resources and materials, reduction of product waste, efficient disposal and recycling. Focus has also been increasingly placed on bio-based and biodegradable materials. At a more general level, efforts are constantly being made to improve the ease of use of containers, while at the same time attempting to enhance the ability of containers to preserve the freshness and increase the shelf life of the packaged products.
These are only some of the reasons why the packaging industry is so vibrant, innovative and highly competitive. As can be expected of all quickly evolving technical areas, patents play a key role in this field. Reverse engineering of certain packaging inventions may be comparatively easy, and so effective protection of innovations in this field can make quite a difference. This is reflected in the number of patent applications filed every year at the EPO in the technical field labelled “Handling”, which has been constantly growing over the past few years. This includes, for example, all new applications filed in patent classes B65B (forming, feeding and closing of containers), B65C (labelling or tagging), B65D (containers, packages and accessories thereof), B65G (transport and storage), and B67C (bottling and filling of liquids or semiliquids).
Approximately 3800 new patent applications were filed in this field back in 2013. That number has gone up to above 4200 in 2016, with an increase of more than 10%, whilst over the same period the number of new patent applications filed in other fields has remained substantially constant or even decreased. Perhaps an even more impressive increase was observed last year; the number of new patent applications filed in the “Handling” field in 2017 having gone up by roughly another 7% to about 4500.
In such a competitive field, securing the exclusive right to offer a packaging solution that consumers will immediately recognise and appreciate the function of can be a very valuable asset.
This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.