Yesterday I attended the MIA's Motorsport Engineering and Technology Show at Silverstone, and got to grips with a variety of motorsport hardware - including a range of steering wheels.
Formula 1 races can be won and lost by fractions of seconds, and seemingly minor improvements to complex components such as a driver's steering wheel can lead to significant advantages in each lap. It appears Hamilton has long been aware of this, and so redesigned his steering wheels at McLaren and again at Mercedes - "All the old wheels used to be circular. Now, you’ll see there’s a top and the handle comes down and it doesn’t join at the bottom". Apparently these changes did not go unnoticed, and other teams appear to have followed suit with design upgrades.
Hamilton laments that “I should have copyrighted it. This is something I’m really proud of - I really love working on the ergonomics of the car". This statement is interesting; not only does it show how important IP protection is both from a commercial and personal perspective, but also how easy it can be to muddle the forms of protection.
Hamilton does not seem to be aware that, in the UK, copyright protection arises automatically upon the creation of an original eligible work i.e. there is no need to actively 'copyright' something. That being said, in the UK there is also a limited and exhaustive list of works in which copyright may subsist. Accordingly, Hamilton's wheel or the components of it may never have been eligible for copyright protection in the first place.
Securing registered design protection or a patent would almost certainly have put Hamilton in a much stronger position to protect his creation. As it stands, he could perhaps look into whether he enjoys unregistered design rights in his work. This could be for 'the appearance of the whole or part' of the wheel under a continuity or supplementary unregistered design right, or 'the shape or configuration of the whole or part' of it under a UK unregistered design. However, he may run into issues if the unregistered design was determined by functional or connectivity considerations.
The subtle differences between each of these rights indicates how difficult it can be for designers, authors and inventors to know what protection they need to put in place to protect their work, and what rights they may already unknowingly enjoy.
It is therefore clear that not every win is on the track - taking steps to protect your game changing IP is an integral part of high performance.