Intellectual Property, known as IP refers to creations of the mind and ideas as opposed to physical, tangible property. Intellectual Property law deals with the protection of IP. Even in the smallest of business you should have a basic understanding of IP law and how it affects your business.
When we talk about protecting your IP, there are two sides to consider
- Protecting your own IP to ensure that someone doesn’t copy your creations and try to use them as their own, known as passing off
- Ensuring a sufficient understanding of IP law is necessary in order for you to be confident that you don’t inadvertently infringe another person’s IP
The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is the official UK government body responsible for intellectual property (IP) rights
You will have rights over your IP even without registering them, this is known as common law rights, however for trademarks, registered designs and patents, registration gives you stronger rights and makes action more simple and less costly.
Here are the main types of protection that you should consider, both in terms of protecting your own and ensuring that you don’t infringe another person’s IP:
Copyright protects your work and stops others from using it without your permission.
You get copyright protection automatically – you don’t have to apply or pay a fee. There isn’t a register of copyright works in the UK.
You automatically get copyright protection when you create:
- original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work, including illustration and photography
- original non-literary written work, such as software, web content and databases
- sound and music recordings
- film and television recordings
- the layout of published editions of written, dramatic and musical works
You can mark your work with the copyright symbol (©), your name and the year of creation. Whether you mark the work or not doesn’t affect the level of protection you have.
How copyright protects your work
Copyright prevents people from:
- copying your work
- distributing copies of it, whether free of charge or for sale
- renting or lending copies of your work
- performing, showing or playing your work in public
- making an adaptation of your work
- putting it on the internet
You can register your trade mark to protect your brand, for example the name of your product or service.
When you register your trade mark, you’ll be able to:
- take legal action against anyone who uses your brand without your permission, including counterfeiters
- put the ® symbol next to your brand – to show that it’s yours and warn others against using it
- sell and license your brand
Your trade mark must be unique. It can include:
- a combination of any of these
You can use a patent to protect your invention. It gives you the right to take legal action against anyone who makes, uses, sells or imports it without your permission.
To be granted a patent, your invention must be all of the following:
- something that can be made or used
- inventive – not just a simple modification to something that already exists
Patents are expensive and difficult to get. Before you apply, check if a patent is right for your business.
What you cannot patent
You cannot patent certain types of invention, including:
- literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works
- a way of doing business, playing a game or thinking
- a method of medical treatment or diagnosis
- a discovery, scientific theory or mathematical method
- the way information is presented
- some computer programs or mobile apps
- ‘essentially biological’ processes like crossing-breeding plants, and plant or animal varieties
You can register the look of a product you’ve designed to stop people copying or stealing it.
The look of your design includes the:
- physical shape
- configuration (or how different parts of a design are arranged together)
Registering your design:
- protects any aspect of your design, for example both the product’s shape and decoration
- gives you the right to prevent others from using it for up to 25 years – you have to renew your registered design every 5 years
- makes taking legal action against infringement and copying more straightforward
Once registered you can display your registration number on your design.
Shapes of objects may already be automatically protected by design right, but it’s easier to protect your design if you register it.
As we see, Intellectual Property Law is complex and if you aren’t confident with what, how or when you should be protecting your IP it is advisable to take advice from an IP professional.
It is easy to inadvertently infringe another person’s IP and just because they don’t take any action, doesn’t mean that it is OK – a general rule is if you find anything you wish to use for your own business, always contact the owner to ask permission first.