Intellectual property: the basics
Intellectual property covers a wide range of business assets, from copyright to trade marks, and patents to design rights. If you have a business, you are likely to own intellectual property and make use of other people’s intellectual property within your business activities.
This guide explains where to find information about the different types of intellectual property, how you can protect your rights and avoid infringing the rights of other intellectual property owners.
What is intellectual property?
Intellectual property lets people own the work they create. It can be any of the following:
- brands and logos
- other kinds of creative work
Intellectual property can be very valuable, and there are businesses, such as computer games companies, that exist simply to develop intellectual property or even take advantage of it.
It is important to protect your business by securing your intellectual property rights. It is equally important to avoid infringing the rights of other businesses.
How you can protect your intellectual property
The way you can protect your intellectual property depends on what exactly it is:
- Copyright is granted to the person or organisation that creates published artistic work, which includes writing, film music and computer software. Unlike most other forms of intellectual property, copyright is granted automatically when the work is first published.
- Patents protect inventions, including the features and processes that make things work.
- Trade marks are symbols that differentiate between goods and services and can be logos or brand names.
- Designs can be protected by registering them, and through design right.
- Digital intellectual property can be protected in other ways than using the law, such as encryption and using digital signatures.
Patents are a valuable form of intellectual property, and like all property, you should protect them. If you have a patent and someone uses it without permission, you have the right to claim for compensation.
Applying for a patent can be complicated, and some products need to be protected by a number of different patents. You may need to use a patent agent to help present the application and make sure you are not infringing anyone else’s intellectual property rights.
You may be able to use someone else’s patent with permission.
When you create a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic piece of work, you will be granted copyright automatically. If someone you employ creates this for you during their normal course of employment, then you will own the copyright unless an agreement has been signed stipulating otherwise.
Copyright covers works such as company documentation, software, songs, original paintings, drawings or photographs. Copyright also protects sounds recordings and films.
If you own a copyright, you can decide whether to:
- allow other businesses or people to use the copyrighted work
- allow work to be copied, adapted, published, performed or broadcast
- allow other businesses to use work for a royalty or licence fee
- sell the copyright
Trade marks set apart your products and services as different from other suppliers. They can be signs, logos, words and names, and there are rules on what can and cannot be registered as a trade mark. Trade marks are highly valuable and can be a major influence on your marketing and your recognition in the market place.
It’s important to protect your own trade marks and also to avoid infringing those of other users.
You can protect the shape or arrangement of three-dimensional objects in two ways. You will automatically be granted design right, and in the UK this gives you protection from copying or misuse by other people or businesses.
You can also register a design. This may give stronger protection and allow you to extend your design right to other countries.
You must avoid infringing another owner’s design right. If you want to use someone else’s design, you may be able to come to an arrangement with the rights owner.
You cannot register two-dimensional designs such as textile patterns, wallpaper designs, or graphic design and they do not have automatic design right. If you want to protect them, you should use copyright.
A start-up intellectual property checklist
Even if your business is a start-up, you can have intellectual property, and it is important to make sure it is protected. Issues to consider are:
- Have you registered your business, either with the tax authorities or with Companies House? The name of your business is an important asset and it is important to make sure it is not already in use by another business.
- Do you have a logo which you can register as a trade mark?
- Do you need to register a patent?
- Do you need to register a design?
- Do you need international protection for your intellectual property?
- Have you done an intellectual property audit?