Intelectual property

1. What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property is something you create that’s unique. It includes copyright, patents and trademarks, and can be:

  • Something you invent, like a new product
  • A product’s design or appearance
  • A brand or logo
  • Written work, like content on a website or in a brochure
  • Artistic work, like photography or illustrations
  • Film recordings or musical compositions
  • Computer software

You can’t protect an idea - but you can often protect what you do with it. For example, you can’t protect an idea for a book. But if you write it, you can protect the words you’ve written.

Who owns intellectual property

You or your business usually own the intellectual property if you create something. If someone you employ or subcontract creates something for you, their contract with you should clarify who owns the intellectual property.

2. Protecting your intellectual property rights

Protecting your intellectual property allows you to:

  • Stop others using what you’ve created without your permission
  • Charge others for the right to use what you’ve created

Getting the right type of protection

The type of protection you need depends on what you’ve created. For example, artistic works are protected by copyright, while inventions are protected by patents.You automatically get copyright protection when you create something original – you don’t need to register.But before making your work public, you should mark it with:

  • The copyright symbol (©)
  • The copyright holder’s name
  • The year the work was created

This gives you more protection, as it shows others that it’s covered by copyright and who owns it.

When your work is protected by copyright

To be protected by copyright, your work must:

  • Be original (you’ll need to be able to prove that you’ve made a significant creative contribution to it)
  • Physically exist (it can’t be just an idea)

Copyright in the UK lasts for the rest of the creator’s life plus 70 years.

Copyright overseas

UK copyright is automatically valid in countries who have signed the Berne Convention.How long copyright lasts in these countries varies, but it’s usually a minimum of 50 years (25 years for photographs).

3. Design right

Design right automatically protects the physical shape of something original that you design. For example, if you design a vase with a unique shape, the design is automatically protected in the UK by design right. Your design must be unique - the law says it can’t be ‘commonplace, everyday or ordinary’. Unregistered community design also protects two-dimensional elements to a design, like a decorative pattern on an object.

Getting stronger protection for your designs

If someone uses your design without permission, defending design right and unregistered community design can be difficult. You need to prove:

  • Your work is original
  • You created it first
  • Any copying was deliberate

If you can prove all these things, you can try to stop or reach an agreement with whoever’s using your design without permission.Applying to register a design costs £60 for the first design and £40 for any other design in the same application.

Registering a design in the EU

To register a design across the EU, you can apply to the Office for Harmonisation of the Internal Market.A design registered across the EU is called a registered community design. Applying for one registered community design costs €350. You can also apply for a registered community design through the IPO - you’ll have to pay an additional handling fee of £15.

Registering a design outside the EU

You can register designs outside the EU. If the country you want to register the design in has signed the Hague Agreement you can either:

  • Apply for registration in that country only
  • Make one application for all countries who have signed the agreement

You must apply through the World Intellectual Property Organisation.If the country hasn’t signed the Hague Agreement, apply to the government department responsible for intellectual property in that country.

4. Disputes about intellectual property

If you think someone’s used your intellectual property without permission (sometimes known as ‘infringing your intellectual property rights’), you should either:

  • Stop them
  • Make a commercial agreement so they can use it

Request in writing that they stop

You can write to them yourself or you can get a solicitor or specialist intellectual property lawyer to do it for you.You can use members of the:

Try mediation or arbitration

If your letter doesn’t work, mediation or arbitration should be your next step. You may be able to reach an agreement, or a licensing deal.You can use the Intellectual Property Office’s (IPO) mediation service wherever you are in the UK. Or you can find accredited mediators in your country from:

A court case about intellectual property can be extremely expensive, even if you win.In England and Wales, the maximum you can get for cases you win in the Patents Court are:

  • £500,000 for damages
  • £50,000 for legal costs

There are no limits in Scotland or Northern Ireland, or if any case in the UK goes to the High Court. This means that even if you win your case, you could pay more in legal fees than you get back. If you really need to take your case to court, you should use a specialist legal adviser, like members of the: