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What is intellectual property?

5-minute read

What is intellectual property?
Simply Business Editorial Team

Simply Business Editorial Team

20 May 2021

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Intellectual property – or IP – refers to anything that has been created, like designs, inventions, brand names, and literary works.

IP is protected by law, for example through copyright, patents, and trade marks, so the author has sole authorisation over who can use and distribute their work.

Businesses take reasonable steps to protect fixed assets, like their stock and equipment. But intangible assets can be more difficult to secure.

Intellectual property (IP) is an intangible asset. Your IP isn’t physical in nature, but patents, trade marks and copyrights can all add value to your business.

Below, we talk about IP in relation to the UK and the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. The rest of the world has different protections – so you may need separate protections in different countries.

What is IP?

Your IP is something unique that you create. Ideas don’t count as IP under UK law, but things that result from an idea do. This could be a new invention, the name of your product, your brand, your services, or even how your products look.

But whenever businesses introduce something to the world, there’s a risk they might be copied. This risk is amplified by the internet, which makes it easier for unique IP to be stolen.

Small businesses in particular need to make sure they’re securing their IP. If your business is built around your IP and someone copies it, you run the risk of losing market share – but there are rights and protections that make it easier to take legal action.

Even if your business doesn't centre around your unique idea, it's important to be aware of intellectual property law to make sure you're not inadvertently stealing somebody else’s IP.

How to protect IP

You get some intellectual property rights automatically but, depending on the type of IP, you might need to register.

It’s a good idea to have a thorough look at your business to work out what IP you have that needs protecting. This is called an IP audit and it should help you value your IP assets just as you would your physical assets.

Copyright

Essentially, copyright stops people using your work without permission or claiming it as their own.

Copyright laws safeguard writing and literary works, art, photography, films, TV, music, web content, and sound recordings. For small businesses, copyright applies to web pages you create, or original photography, for example.

It’s worth noting that you can't claim copyright on slogans and names, but these can sometimes be trademarked (we’ve got more info on registering trade marks below).

It's also important to make sure you don’t infringe on anyone else’s copyright, particularly when it comes to using internet resources. You shouldn’t assume that just because it’s on the internet it’s in the public domain.

How do I copyright my work?

You don’t need to register or pay for copyright. Your work will be protected automatically.

You can choose to mark your work with a copyright symbol, your name and the year it was created. But your work will be protected under copyright law regardless of whether you do this.

How long does copyright last?

Copyright protection starts as soon as your work is created. The length of time the copyright lasts for depends on the type of work:

  • written, dramatic, musical and artistic work – 70 years after the author’s death
  • sound and music recording – 70 years from when it’s first published
  • films – 70 years
  • broadcasts – 50 years from when it’s first broadcast
  • layout of published editions of written, dramatic or musical works – 25 years from when it’s first published

Can you copyright an idea?

Unfortunately you can’t copyright an idea. When it comes to protecting ideas and concepts, it will be the recorded version of your idea that's protected by copyright – your website copy or brand name for example.

Design right

Design right protects the shape and configuration (how the different parts are put together) of objects. Automatic protection lasts for 10 years after the design was first sold, or 15 years after it was created – whichever is earlier.

Intellectual property – register for protection

While copyright and design right are automatic, there are some types of IP where you need to register for more protection.

It all depends on what brand, product or invention you’ve created, so a thorough audit of your business and its IP should help you work out what level of protection you need. You can always get the help of a specialist solicitor here if you need to.

Here are the types of IP you can register, and why you might need to register them. You should make sure they meet the criteria for registration before going ahead.

Trade marks

You can protect words, images, slogans, and more as trade marks. This can help you protect a distinctive brand. Start by searching for a trade mark on the government website to be sure your idea is original.

Your trade mark must be unique and can’t be misleading or non-distinctive. It also can't describe the goods or services it relates to – so trying to trade mark 'lawnmower' for a new lawnmower won't work. A standard online trade mark application costs £200.

Registered designs

You can register the look of a product you’ve designed, as long as it’s new. You can protect its appearance, physical shape, decoration and the configuration, which is how different parts of the design are arranged together.

Registering a design makes it easier to tackle any infringement legally. It costs £50 to register one design.

Patents

Patents go further than protecting your design – they can protect a new invention, like a tool or machine, and how it works. You can only get a patent if your invention is something that can be made (or used), it’s new, and not simply a modification to something that already exists.

Keep in mind that multiple protections can relate to one product. So you might register a name and logo as a trademark, protect the product’s unique shape as a registered design, patent a unique part of the product, and copyright artwork relating to the product.

How to patent an idea in the UK?

There are eight steps to applying for a patent in the UK, from making sure your invention is new to completing your application form and getting approval.

Patents are expensive, with different fees involved at different stages of the process. Some estimates put overall fees at more than £4,000, and it can take five years to reach the approval/refusal stage.

The government recommends you find a patent attorney if you want to go ahead with an application.

What is intellectual property theft?

You breach intellectual property law when you use someone else’s IP without their permission.

Before forging ahead with designing a product, registering a trade mark or applying for a patent, you should research and check that your idea is unique. You can look for existing patents, designs and trade marks on the UK government website.

If you’re commissioning work (like asking a freelancer to design a logo for you), you should make sure that as the business owner, you have the rights to the work.

And you can purchase or license other people’s IP, and sell and license your own IP. Some companies might license other companies to use their trade marks – common examples are merchandising and franchising agreements.

The Intellectual Property Office has lots more information on intellectual property laws. You can also enlist specialist help from attorneys trained to deal with IP rights.

Let us know all about your experience with protecting your intellectual property in the comments below.

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We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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