Intellectual Property

Close Up Idea Planning Strategy ConceptIf you are an artist, a composer, a designer, an inventor, a software developer, a writer, a performer or anyone who has created something, then you may have intellectual property (IP) rights in what you have created. IP means that you can be recognised as the creator and that others will have to ask your permission and possibly pay you to use or reproduce your creation.

What are the different types of intellectual property?


Copyright is the property right which exists in various ‘works’ of artists, designers, writers, composers, film makers, sound recorders, broadcasters, etc. They are the authors or creators of their works and they own the right to do certain things in relation to the work, such as making a copy of their book or downloading their song, broadcasting their concert or reproducing their film in a public performance. They can give permission to others to use their work. But downloading music for example without the author’s (owner’s) permission may be an infringement of the owner’s copyright. In this case the owner may sue the person infringing the copyright.

As the copyright only protects the owner’s work but not the ideas (see below), others can also create the same or even identical work (for example photos of the same scene) as long as they do it independently using their own efforts. There is no monopoly over creating the same work in copyright.


Patents protect an invention. They are granted by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO). To be protected by the patent, the invention must be new, non-obvious, have the ability to be used in industry and satisfy a number of other strict conditions such as a novelty, inventive step, etc, eg Dyson’s invention of a motor ball in upright vacuum cleaners giving them lighter feel and enhancing their manoeuvrability.

The person who is registered as a proprietor is the owner of the patent. The owner can give a licence to someone else to use the patented invention. An inventor may not always be the owner of the patent. If the person came up with the invention as part of their employment for someone else, the employer is regarded as the inventor, registered as the proprietor and owns the patent. But if the invention is of outstanding benefit to the employer, the employee may be eligible for compensation from their employer.

Design rights

A newly designed product or article may not be novel or inventive enough to satisfy the requirements for granting a patent, eg a hand bag. But a new design of individual character (eg a leather hand bag with Medusa pattern may be protected as a registered design. Designs can be protected by registration with the IPO subject to payment of fees. A registered design gives you exclusive rights in your design and prevents others from copying three-dimensional shapes and configurations and two-dimensional elements of the design, as well as making, marketing, selling, importing or exporting a product of your design, for up to 25 years. Initially protection is granted by the IPO for five years and then it can be renewed every five years.

Unregistered designs can be protected in the UK for up to 15 years which costs you nothing.But there are some restrictions to unregistered deign rights. For example, if you commercially exploited your unregistered design, the validity of your unregistered design rights will be reduced to a maximum of 10 years. For the last five years of that period anyone is entitled to a licence to copy your design in their products and sell them. Also unregistered design rights do not protect two-dimensional elements of your design such as surface patterns from copying by others.

If you are commissioned (hired) or employed to create a new design, usually the person who commissioned or employed you will be the first owner of your design. But you may still own the copyright for your work.


Trademarks are the so-called badges of origin of goods or services. The purpose of trademarks is for consumers to tell the difference between goods and services of one producer or service provider from the other. Companies’ logos are examples of trademarks. Trademarks are registered by the IPO. The main requirement for registration is that a trademark must be distinct and recognisable, not an obscure one. If a registered trade mark is not used for five or more years it may be revoked by the IPO.

Passing off

The law of passing off is the form of IP which protects the goodwill of the business. Passing off is where someone uses a name without the permission of the owner in order to financially benefit from the good reputation of the name or to promote themselves. Names on their own, without a logo, are not covered by trademark protection but are protected by the law of passing off. The person passing off could be sued by the owners under the passing off law. This area of law has been widely used to control cybersquatting – registration of internet domain names which contain organisations’ names in the hope of selling the domain names to those organisations or owners at inflated prices.

Can I stop others from stealing my ideas?

There is no definite answer to this question. The general principle is that there is no IP rights simply in ideas. The same idea can be expressed in different ways and it is a creation, which is the way that an idea is expressed, that is protected. It may be possible to protect your new idea for an invention if you register a patent for it. Patents usually protect ideas if they are expressed on paper. But not all inventions can be patented because there are certain requirements for the invention to be met in order to obtain a patent.

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