Intellectual Property (IP) – an overview

The term IP covers a wide variety of intangible rights including copyright, trade marks, design rights, and patents, to name a few. IP is one of the most important assets a business will have and is likely to form a substantial part of the total assets. Each of these rights should be considered separately as each one has its own subsistence criteria and therefore protects something slightly different.

Copyright is an unregistered right and protects the form of expression of ideas (not the ideas themselves) – examples include literary, musical, dramatic and artistic works.

In summary it prevents others from copying your work – it does not prevent someone from creating the same work independently.

For copyright to subsist, the work must be:
i) original i.e. the work must not have been copied
ii) created using sufficient skill and labour
iii) represent the authors own intellectual creation

Duration of copyright varies depending on the work but generally speaking lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author dies.

Design rights are all about protecting the appearance of a product (whether aesthetically pleasing or not) predominantly aimed at a mass market.

In the UK, there are two main types of design rights, namely:

UK registered design rights
i) Protects the appearance of whole or part of a product resulting from the features of, in particular, the lines, contours, colours, shape, texture or materials of the product or its ornamentation.
ii) Must be new and have individual character
iii) Lasts for up to 25 years, provided the relevant renewal fees are paid every 5 years

UK unregistered design rights
i) Protects the shape or configuration (whether internal or external) of the whole or part of an article
ii) Must be original and not commonplace
iii) Can last 10 or 15 years depending on whether the design was made available for hire/sale

Patents concern the protection of inventions.

A patent gives the owner a 20 year monopoly (subject to paying renewal fees) on the invention in exchange for disclosure of the invention to the public.

For an invention to be patentable in the UK, the invention must be:
i) New
ii) Inventive
iii) Capable of industrial application
iv) Not fall within one of the excluded categories

A trade mark is the mark or logo under which a company does business – this can be registered (if so use of the ® symbol may be used) or unregistered (use of the ™ symbol may be used).

Generally speaking a trade mark acts as a “badge of origin” identifying the source of the goods or services to consumers

For a trade mark to be registrable certain criteria must be met including:
i) It must be distinctive;
ii) not descriptive (it cannot describe what the business does)

It is important to note that when registering a trade mark you must stipulate in relation to what classes of goods and/or services you will be using it in relation to (or may do in the future).

Not strictly an IP right but generally considered along side the usual IP rights – aimed at protecting technical and/or commercial information (therefore covers know-how and trade secrets).

For the law of confidence to apply the information must:
i) be confidential in nature
ii) have been imparted in circumstances in which an obligation of confidence arises
iii) Its unauthorised use would be detrimental to the person imparting it 

An alternative means to protecting confidential information is to enter into a confidentiality agreement – please see “Confidentiality agreements” for further information