Intellectual property (IP) is a creation of the mind. They are intangible assets for which exclusive rights are granted by law. These assets include artistic works, discoveries, inventions, designs, phrases, symbols, etc. Intellectual property is granted protective rights in the UK that makes it illegal to steal these intangible ideas; although the precise method of enforcement changes with each one.
Protection of intellectual property affords the owner of the property exclusive rights to create, use and distribute the work. Owners are granted a temporary monopoly on the idea, and with the exception of trade secrets, owners disclose their process and/or original works to the government and the public.
In theory, by granting the owners protection from theft, IP regulation promotes creative and inventive progress. It allows owners to display their work to the public without the worry of losing profit through imitation.
Depending on the work, intellectual property falls into one of four categories: copyrights, trademarks, patents and trade secrets. The following article is a brief overview of the various forms of intellectual property; for greater depth and information on how to apply for IP protection, select the links at the end of their respective sections.
Copyrights protect the expression of an idea. The expression can be in various forms, including but not limited to literary, musical and dramatic works, motion pictures and sound recordings, pictorial, graphic and sculptural art, even computer programs.
Copyrights give the owner exclusive rights to copy, modify, distribute, perform and display his/her work. In general, copyrights last for the lifetime of the creator plus 50 years. But there are exceptions that can alter the term of a copyright. For example, photographs generally have copyright of the life of their creator plus 25 years. On the other hand, the play Peter Pan by JM Barrie was granted a rare instance of Perpetual Copyright in UK law, meaning it will never go out of copyright.
To copyright a work in the UK, you simply have to create it. Even if you forget to add the © symbol, your work will still be legally protected from the moment you make it.
For more info on copyright duration, visit the UK government’s webpage.
A trademark is a word or symbol that represents and identifies a product or a brand. To qualify for trademark protection, the asset must be distinctive; it must distinguish your goods or services from those of others.
Trademarks grant exclusive rights of use to the owners. The trademark is protected by the UK government, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the owner to identify and prosecute infringements. Registered trademarks only last ten years under UK law, and require a fee payment of around £175 to both register and renew (this can be done via the government website). International companies should be aware that a UK trademark only protects your brand in the UK. To apply for an EU trademark, you will have to follow a different procedure.
For more advice on registering trademarks, click here.
Patents protect inventions, original designs and novel processes. These inventions, however, must be new, non-obvious and useful to ensure the granting of a patent.
Patents give exclusive rights to the holder to exclude competitors from making, using or selling the property throughout the EU. Most patents offer 20 years of protection, although they can take between 3-4 years to be awarded. In return, details of your patent will be published 18 months after you file it, and you undertake not to make your invention public before patenting it.
Click here for a complete guide on applying for a patent.
- Trade Secrets
A trade secret is any information that, by remaining covert, offers a business a competitive edge or some economic value. By definition, reasonable actions must be taken to maintain its secrecy in order for the information to be considered a trade secret.
Unlike other forms of intellectual property, which are afforded protection by the government, trade secrets must be protected by the holder. The UK does not grant trade secrets; instead, it only regulates infringement when misappropriation claims are made. Trade secrets last indefinitely and are valid until disclosed to the public.
For a guide on UK Intellectual Property Law that will help you determine where your trade secret stands legally, click here.
Intellectual property is a complex legal subject. If you plan on applying for IP protection, be sure to perform due diligence. A good IP lawyer is also useful and can help determine what is best for you. He/she can also help with the lengthy and frustrating bureaucratic process involved in filing.
But keep in mind that, although IP protection is expensive and time-consuming, it’s the only option that ensures your unique creation, idea or symbol remains yours.