It happened to me. Badly. In the mid 1980s, a colleague and I created Holbein, a company producing hand painted decorative accessories for top interior designers. The business was a great success.
But it came with a huge problem: theft. Every time we launched a new design, it was knocked off by larger companies without any hope of redress. Like the vast majority of Britain's 350,000 design companies, we were a tiny outfit. We weren't in a position to take on the unscrupulous thieves and copycats. We had no idea where to start.
So I came up with another idea: to create a plan to help David fight Goliath. Today Anti Copying in Design (ACID) represents thousands of designers employed by 1300 member companies. We're here to help the good guys defeat the bad and also promote design originality as a real route to growth. For the creator, not design thieves!
Last month, our 15-year long campaign culminated in a landmark Act of Parliament that makes intentional infringing a registered design a criminal offence punishable by prison. But there's still a lot more to do to keep designers fully protected, as the majority rely on unregistered rights and design law is still incredibly complex.
So what can you do to prevent someone ripping off your design - and what action can you take if you find out it's already happened?
1. Cross all your t's and dot every i
If costs permit, make sure you register your designs as comprehensively as possible. The downside is that UK and EU registration authorities do not examine your registrations so what you submit is what you have to rely on. So, the more detail you include, the better! Alternatively, if you can't afford registration, ACID membership will give you access to a Design Data Bank through ACID Marketplace which holds over 300,000 designs. This doesn't add to your design rights but gives independent evidence of the date they are received by us. If you don't want to be copied, say so! There's no more powerful message on your website/marketing material. Something along the lines of: "All the intellectual property in our designs belongs to (your name). Any infringements will be pursued vigorously".
2. Sign and date all your work
Simple, but when it comes to proving your design ownership, an audit trail of the detailed journey from idea to marketplace is compelling. The majority of ACID cases have settled based on strong evidence to support unregistered designs.
3. Become "IP savvy"
It may sound nerdy but it pays to know the IP laws that protect you. Watch the competition. Trade mark your brand name if you can. The more you build up your reputation, either under your own name or one you trade under, the stronger protection you will have.
4. Trade more safely
With Government endorsement, ACID has started the first UK Design's exchange, a safer trading platform where designers can lodge their work and create positive relationships with design buyers who can view your latest designs by registering and signing the ACID Design Buyers' Charter. The good news is that you can track who has viewed them.
5. Make an almighty noise!
Gaining public support by shouting about unfairness and a blatant disregard for design originality is just what ACID member Rob Law has done in his legal battle against PMS, a Hong Kong-based company who produced a remarkably similar lookalike design to Rob Law's famous Trunki toddler case. Heavyweight designers like Sir Terence Conran, Kevin McCloud and Brompton Bike MD Will Butler-Adams have united in their support under the campaign banner #ProtectYourDesign.
Representations will be made by ACID to the Supreme Court in what appears to be a legal technicality not only for Trunki but UK designers in general. Clarity is needed.
And if your designs continually get ripped off, contact your MP. After all, if you and your employees rely on protecting your designs from knock offs, jobs are on the line if you fail - and, believe me, that hurts.
Imitation isn't flattery if it costs you your business. It nearly cost me mine.
Dids McDonald is shortlisted for the 2014 First Women Awards.
The awards ceremony will take place on Thursday 12 June and is hosted by Real Business in association with Lloyds Banking Group.