No. I don't think we've ever covered this question before. And it is an interesting one.
Interior design per se is not something the law - either of copyright or design - specifically protects. Under copyright law, architecture and architect's drawings are protected, as are works of artistic craftsmanship (say something like hand embroidered cushions or bespoke hand-printed wallpaper), but not the complete assembly of the items which go to make up the design for an interior. The nearest example I can think of in which the courts have addressed this issue was a case called Shelley Films Limited v Rex Features Ltd
. E.M.L.R 134 involving the design of a film set which was found to be protectable by copyright. It is highly debatable as to whether this means that interior design would fall under the same heading.
Design right on the other hand can protect the overall design of an object or product, but full protection only comes if the design is registered - I'm guessing that won't have been done in this case - and unregistered design right, which is a little like copyright in that it comes into being at the time something is created, cannot protect surface decoration such as patterns on fabrics or wallcoverings. And in any case, design right, whether registered or unregistered, only protects against the making of an object or product to the original design, and does not apply to photographs etc of the object. The two pieces of legislation covering design right are the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA) and the Registered Designs Act 1949 (RDA). The CDPA talks about the design of 'articles' (see section 212
) while the definition under the RDA section 1
(2) In this Act â€œdesignâ€ means the appearance of the whole or a part of a product resulting from the features of, in particular, the lines, contours, colours, shape, texture or materials of the product or its ornamentation.
(3) In this Actâ€”
â€œcomplex productâ€ means a product which is composed of at least two replaceable component parts permitting disassembly and reassembly of the product; and
â€œproductâ€ means any industrial or handicraft item other than a computer program; and, in particular, includes packaging, get-up, graphic symbols, typographic type-faces and parts intended to be assembled into a complex product.
which I would not interpret as being applicable to a design for an interior.
You are right to assume that if there were any intellectual property rights in the design for an interior, they would belong to your former employer (see section 11(2)
and/or section 215(3)
of the CDPA). However, I am fairly sure that the architecture category of copyright could not be applied in the case of interior design, as I'm guessing the work you carried out was not to do with the fabric of the building or the materials used for its construction. So that just leaves the possible interpretation that the whole design might constitute an artistic work, much like the film set referred to above, although I am sceptical about this.
Furthermore I would advance the theory that since you designed this interior there was an implicit licence for you to document it as an example of your work, much as someone else might list various career achievements in their CV. Unfortunately while the fair dealing exception for the purposes of private study or research
would permit you to take the photographs for those purposes, that would not cover the use of them on your website as that would constitute 'commercial purposes' which fall outside that particular exception.
I sense that you probably don't want to approach your previous employer for permission and so I think you are just going to have to take a chance on this. If your previous employer does raise an objection at some future date, that is probably the point at which you will have to make the major decision, and when you might need to seek some specific legal advice. Until then, I think there is no obvious legal bar to you taking some photographs with the permission of the home-owner.