An introduction to intellectual property (IP)
The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is the official UK government body responsible for intellectual property (IP) rights including patents, designs, trade marks and copyright. The IPO operates and maintains a clear and accessible intellectual property system in the UK, which encourages innovation and helps the economy and society to benefit from knowledge and ideas, as well as helping people get the right type of protection for their creation or invention. Here the IPO outlines the basics of IP and explains how you can discover your IP rights.
Intellectual property (IP) rights grant you the ability to take legal action if others attempt to make, use, import, copy or sell your creation.
The four main types of IP rights are:
- Trade marks
Work in the creative sector? You’ve probably heard a lot about copyright but may not fully understand how it protects your work.
Copyright is a property right which is intended to reward the making of, and investment in, creative works. Copyright protects literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, sound recordings, films, broadcasts and published editions.
In the UK, copyright comes into being automatically when a qualifying work is created; there is no formal registration. The term of protection for most copyright material is the life of the creator, plus 70 years from the date of their death. Please check our website for more information on how long copyright lasts.
Copyright grants the creator the right to authorise or prohibit copying, distribution to the public, rental/lending, public performance, adaptation, and communication to the public.
You can find out more about the rights granted by copyright on our website.
A flair for design
Crafter or designer?
Design refers to the appearance or ‘look’ of products. The look of your design includes the appearance, physical shape, configuration and decoration. This can be 2D patterns or 3D designs.
Registering your design allows you to gain a marketing edge by preventing others from using it without your permission.
Unregistered UK design right automatically protects your work for 10 years from when it was sold, or 15 years from when it was created, whichever is earliest. However, it only protects the shape and configuration of a design and does not include 2-dimensional designs like textiles and wallpaper.
Unregistered designs offer limited protection and can be difficult to enforce. Where disputes arise, you may have to prove the existence of your rights. Unlike registered designs, it will be your responsibility to prove intentional copying.
The ‘lightbulb’ moment
Think you may have invented a market sell-out or something that could even change the world? Or perhaps something simple that just makes everyday life that little bit easier?
A patent protects new inventions and lets you take legal action against anyone who makes, uses, sells or imports your invention without your permission. You can only apply for a patent if you have created something that is inventive, new and useful.
A patent specification is a legal document and requires specialist skills to draft properly. Your chances of obtaining a patent are significantly greater if you use an attorney. You can find out more about why it’s worthwhile here.
The most common mistake made by inventors is revealing their invention before applying for a patent. It is your choice on whether you decide to take your product straight to market or apply for patent protection. However, if you have made your invention public, you could lose the possibility of obtaining a granted patent.
Sometimes, you may need help from a third party to create or distribute your products. Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are created when a business owner is speaking to potential partners such as investors, manufacturers and stockists.
NDAs are important when applying for patent protection. If a third party is helping you to create your product, make sure they sign an NDA, or it could affect your chances of gaining a patent. Read our guidance on non-disclosure agreements here.
Building a brand
Creating a brand that encompasses what you and your business offers is an important aspect of your business plan.
You may want something distinctive and unique that sets you apart in a crowded market. A trade mark protects your company name, logo, or a phrase. It can even protect a shape, colour, sound, aspect of packaging or any combination of these.
The registration of your company name with Companies House doesn’t automatically protect it. You have the legal right to the name, but it doesn’t stop other businesses from trading under very similar names.
The most effective trade marks are those ‘distinctive’ to the goods and services they protect. This allows consumers to identify your goods or service from your competitors. So, if your company name describes the products you sell or the services you offer, there’s a good chance it won’t be distinctive enough to be a registered trade mark!
It is recommended you search our trade marks database before applying to see if a similar trade mark to your brand already exists.
Sharing out the IP
A licence grants a third-party permission to do something that would be an infringement of your IP rights without the licence.
IP can be “licensed-out” or “licensed-in”. You can “license-out” to another company in return for a fee. You can “license-in” if you want to use another company’s IP to develop your own business and products.
Free online learning
The Intellectual Property Office’s has a range of online learning tools to help you better understand your IP rights.
Our IP Health Check free online tool can help you identify what IP you own. Answer a series of questions and receive a tailored confidential report, based on what you have told us.
IP Equip tool is a free online CPD-accredited training tool. It takes your through four short modules and uses case studies to show why intellectual property is important.
More of a visual learner? Our IP Basics videos provide short, simple explanations of the various IP rights. They also cover licensing and franchising, how to avoid infringing IP and what to do if your business is a victim of IP crime.
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