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Intellectual property law in the UK: your 5-minute guide

Oct 28, 2022 | Uncategorised

Intellectual property can seem like a vague concept. Unlike other forms of property, it’s not something you can lock up for the night and ensure its safety. This makes it vulnerable to being copied – which is why businesses of all shapes and sizes need to secure their IP.

At its most basic, your intellectual property is something unique that you’ve created with your mind. The aspect of creation is key – if you just have an idea, it doesn’t count under UK law.

So let’s say you’re on the bus one day and you have an idea for a new app that locates spider webs in a room for ease of clearance. The idea itself is yours, sure, but not legally. But the app itself is your IP. The service it provides is your IP. Even the WebSearch name and logo are yours.

Or let’s say you’re a writer of fiction. Your stories are your intellectual property.

What’s protecting your intellectual property? Like we say, you can’t stow it away in a safe or lock it up overnight – and the possibility of intellectual property theft has increased exponentially with the internet. It’s never been easier to pinch a concept and pass it off as your own.

This is where intellectual property law comes in. Knowing your rights keeps you protected. What’s more, it’s these intellectual property rights that enable you to start making money off your idea.

So without further ado, here’s your five-minute guide to IP law.

What is covered by intellectual property?

As we mentioned, an idea can be yours but it’s not legally yours – after all, someone else may have hit on the same idea. Intellectual property covers:

  • The name of your product or brand
  • Your invention
  • The design or look of your product or brand
  • Things you write, make or produce

These creations of yours can be protected in different ways, many of which you’ll have heard of – copyrights, patents, designs and trademarks. Some of these types of intellectual property protection are automatically conferred on your IP. Others need to be applied for.

Who owns intellectual property?

When you buy a comb, you own a comb. Obviously.

But to own the intellectual property rights for a comb, you need to have done one of the following things:

  1. You created it and it can be given a copyright, patent or design.
  2. You purchased the IP rights for the comb from someone else – the creator or a previous owner.
  3. You own a brand of comb that can be trademarked.

These criteria can be met by an individual or a business. But, typically, you don’t get to own intellectual property if you worked on a project as an employee.

Protecting your intellectual property

Protecting your intellectual property allows you to make money from it as well as protecting it from theft or duplication. And if your intellectual property is stolen or copied, you’re able to take legal action more swiftly and efficiently.

And we mentioned the different types of protection available – copyrights, patents, designs and trademarks. Let’s take a closer look at these and what they cover.

First off, the registered trademark. This means you can take legal action if your brand is used against your permission. It also confers legitimacy – the ® symbol is a sign that you have legal permission to sell and licence your brand, which can deter counterfeiters.

You’re able to trademark product names, sounds, jingles, logos, colours or a combination of these. It lasts for 10 years, after which it has to be renewed.

Secondly, there’s a “design”. This protects the appearance, shape or pattern of a product and makes it easier for you to prove that you have legal ownership of the product. It also records the date of its creation. Again, it helps deter people from selling or copying your product without permission.

If you register a design, it has to be new. You can register its shape, decoration, packaging, colour or patterns.

A design registration lasts only five years compared to a trademark’s 10. As with a trademark, it needs to be renewed every five years for up to a maximum of 25 years.

Next, there’s copyright. You automatically get copyright protection when you create writing and literary works, art, photography, films, TV, music and web content.

Because it’s given automatically, you don’t need to mark your work with the © symbol – but it can show people that you take your intellectual property seriously. Either way, your level of protection is the same.

Copyright stops people from copying, distributing, renting, lending, performing, showing or adapting your work, and it means they can’t publish it online without violating your copyright.

Finally, there’s patenting. This is for inventions and products such as machines and medicines. It means that people are faced with legal action if they use your invention without permission.

“Invention” is the operative word here. To receive a patent, a product must be three things: it must be new, inventive – so not an existing product with tweaks – and “either something that can be made and used, a technical process, or a method of doing something”.

A patent lasts five years. After that, it must be renewed annually up to a maximum of 20 years.

What if you’re self-employed?

Let’s say you’re a freelance designer commissioned to develop a product. In this instance, you typically own the intellectual property unless – and it’s a big unless – the contract you signed stipulates otherwise and gives the rights to the other party.

Do you need advice on how best to protect your intellectual property? At Milners Law, we pride ourselves on being approachable, plain-speaking and experts in commercial law. Don’t hesitate to contact us for a free legal consultation.


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