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Retailing success is a confluence of real estate, operations and product. However many retail store owners (and building and home designers) often overlook one of their most valuable assets – intellectual property.

Trademarks (and trade dress) can be used to protect esoteric creations such as themes of interiors of retail stores, restaurants and associated menus and related concepts. Store designs, blueprints, carpeting patterns, textiles, tapestries and other visual designs are copyright IP. In 1990, the copyright law was expanded to include physical buildings.

Store design IP is particularly noteworthy for retail-based franchises. Unless you and your architect (builder or remodeler) agree otherwise, you will not have the right to license the design and specifications for your prototypical retail outlet to your franchise. The rights in these plans will remain exclusively with your architect or designer, unless you have a work-for-hire agreement or copyright assignment.

Last year, Apple, one of the most well known consumer technology companies in the world, received a trademark for the design and layout of its retail stores. Apple’s move to trademark their store designs was prompted by the fake Apple stores that popped up in China. These stores sold bootleg products and created a very similar “store experience” by ripping off open floors, glass walls, and overall minimalist design.

This isn’t the first time a big tech company sought a trademark for its retail store designs – Microsoft was granted one in 2011. Their retail stores are similar to Apple’s design, with some distinct differences. Both use aesthetic influences and style elements to maximize profits and increase interest in their products.

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