How to protect intellectual property in the UK

September 13, 2021

Do you want to stop people from mimicking or stealing your inventions, things you make, write, manufacture, or even the name of your brand and design?

These are some of the assets that businesses look to protect and there are a few things to be aware of before you try and protect your intellectual property.

There are many different types of intellectual property that you can own, including copyrights, patents and trade secrets. In order to be covered under the law, you must meet certain criteria.

What is intellectual property?

Trade marks, designs, patents and copyrights are all types of intellectual property protection. 

It's important to note that intellectual property is not limited to physical objects but can also apply to ideas, such as software, code and business methods. The owner has the exclusive rights for their use and sale, which they have been granted by law through registering with the UK IP office.

This means you need permission before making copies or using someone else's work yourself.

What counts as intellectual property?

For you to own intellectual property, you need to fulfil several conditions, including:

  • you must have created the property and acquired copyright or patented it; and
  • you must have bought the property rights from the previous owner if you aren’t the creator.

How do you own intellectual property?

Intellectual property can be owned in several ways, but the most obvious one is by being the inventor or creator. Intellectual property may also be co-owned by more than one individual, belong to a business or group of people and it can be sold or transferred.

Intellectual property if you are self-employed

Intellectual property can be a tricky issue if you're self-employed. There is no such thing as the "right to intellectual property" - it's all about how much protection your IP has. 

When you create something, make sure that you are protecting what belongs to you and not someone else, by keeping good records of where ideas come from or who influenced them in some way. 

If you are creating something unique on behalf of a client, written contracts between you and any commissioner of the work can help to determine who the legal owner is.

On the other hand, if you are employed by someone, you will not retain the intellectual property as your own, if the invention is in line with your job description.

Types of intellectual property protection

When we talk about protecting your IP, we take two angles - one being prevention from others using or copying your work without permission; the other angle being mitigating damages if someone does infringe on that IP.

There are several ways of protecting your IP. They include automatic protection, patents, designs, trademarks, and sometimes employing several types of protection.

Automatic IP protection

Automatic protection offers some degree of legal protection for the following. For example you can create a new website for your business and copyright it without needing to apply for protection.

You can mark your creation with a © symbol, your name and the year of creation - however this tends not to affect your level of protection.

Automatic protection is against unauthorised use of registered trademarks and copyrighted material such as films, music videos, songs, web content, databases and software.

Design rights provide basic protections against imitating products with similar shapes, while copyright provides automatic protection through law alone - i.e. no registration needed - on original inventions.

Trademarks

You can:

  • apply for a trademark by applying to the UK Intellectual Property Office online. It will take about four months to register a trademark
  • you can also use other forms of protection such as trade dress and service marks.

You should be aware that trademarks do not always last forever. Trademarks must be renewed after every 10 years. You are allowed to renew the trademark six months before or after the expiration of the 10 years.

Registered designs

You can register a design in the UK if it is new and not already been made available to the public before. You must show that you have an original idea that has particular characteristics/features or patterns of decoration that make it different from any other design.

Once your design is registered with the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), you will get exclusive rights over what happens to your product - including who can produce copies for sale, how they may be sold and where they are allowed to sell them, for up to 25 years.

The design must not be about how a product works as this would call for a patent instead. Your design should also not use any protected emblems or flags.

Patents

A patent is a legal document issued to grant an inventor exclusivity for up to 20 years.

The purpose of a patent is twofold; firstly it incentivises invention by providing inventors with some protection against being copied. Secondly; they prevent others from using patented ideas without seeking permission from the person who invented them. The only requirement for a patent application is that any new idea should be able to be explained in words or drawings, as this allows other people to understand what has been patented.

Trade secrets

Trade secrets are also protected by law. They are usually classified as confidential information, such as a formula or recipe developed to create commercially valuable products.

Trade secrets can also be business strategies and plans, research data not yet made public and any other valuable information that would cause harm if it became publicly known before the organisation was ready for this to happen.

Generally, a trade secret needs to satisfy three conditions:

  • it is secret;
  • the owner of this information has taken reasonable steps to protect it; and
  • there is commercial value in keeping that information confidential.

Managing your intellectual property

The first step to managing your intellectual property is identifying all of the different types of IP you have (trademarks, patents, designs and copyright). 

There may be certain things that need to be done for each type of protection before you can use it or apply for it (e.g. registering a trademark). 

Need help with protecting intellectual property? Speak to an experienced commercial solicitor now. Get in touch here

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