Intellectual property rights

Copyright, trademarks, design rights, and patents

Intellectual property (or IP) refers to creative work which can be treated as an asset or physical property. Intellectual property rights fall principally into four main areas; copyright, trademarks, design rights and patents.

Copyright

Copyright applies to recorded artistic and literary works. This includes a wide range of works, including:

  • Literary works, such as poetry, song lyrics, manuscripts, manuals, computer programs/software, website code/scripts and text content, commercial documents, leaflets, newsletters and articles etc.
  • Dramatic works, such as plays, dance choreography, etc.
  • Musical works, in both sound recordings and score or notation.
  • Artworks, such as photography, painting, digital art, sculptures, technical drawings/diagrams, maps, logos, etc.
  • Typographical arrangement of published editions such as in magazines and periodicals.
  • Sound recordings, which includes recordings of other copyright works, e.g. a performance of musical or literary work.
  • Films, video footage, broadcasts and cable programmes.

Copyright gives the author specific rights in relation to the work, prohibits unauthorised actions, and allows the author to take legal action against instances of infringement or plagiarism.

Please see our pages: Copyright law, the Berne Convention, or UK copyright law for more details of the protection.

Copyright is an automatic international right, and excepting specific considerations for US citizens, a single registration with the UK Copyright Service ensures you have verifiable evidence of copyright ownership to help prove and protect your rights at a worldwide level. Immediate protection is available via the online copyright registration facility, while postal applications are typically processed in just a few days.

Trademarks

A trademark is intended to prevent confusion in the marketplace. A trademark can be a name, word, slogan, design, symbol or other unique device that identifies a product or organisation. It is quite literally ‘a mark under which you trade’.

Trademark can be represented by the 'R in a circle' ® denoting a registered trademark, or the letters 'TM'. In the USA they also have a separate classification for services and also use the letters 'SM' to denote a 'service mark', though they in fact receive the same legal protection as trademarks.

Unregistered trademarks

Common law provides protection against what is called ‘passing off’. This is where someone else uses the mark in the same or similar market in a way that could confuse customers that were looking for your business (such as an unscrupulous trader attempting to poach trade). To successfully prove passing off you should be able to demonstrate that:

  • The name is yours. e.g. some proof of ownership and/or creation (such as a copyright registration) that predates the offence.

  • Customers associate the name with you. You need to show you have been trading under that name and have historical customers that have bought from you under that name.

  • You have been harmed by the other person’s use of the name. e.g. loss of revenue.

Trademark registration

To add weight to a claim, trademarks can also be registered at a national or territory level with an appointed government body. Trademark applications typically take anywhere between 6 and 18 months to be processed.

Registering in countries such as the US, the UK, Japan, etc will protect your mark in that country only, but within the European Union, there now exists a Community Trade Mark (CTM) which covers the mark in all EU countries. There is also the Madrid System that provides a facility to submit trademarks applications to many countries at the same time.

Registered trademarks may be identified by the ‘®’ symbol. (it is illegal to use the ® symbol or state that the trademark is registered until the trademark has in fact been registered).

In most countries, the national patent office will also administer trademark registrations.

Design rights

A design right will apply to a physical product: the appearance of a product, in particular, the shape, texture, colour, materials used, contours and ornamentation. To qualify as a new design, the overall impression should be different from any existing design.

Just like trademarks in the previous section, an unregistered design right will receive some protection under common law, but can be registered at national (or world region) level for further protection in those countries.

For information on design rights, please see our fact sheet P-15:Designs and design rights.

Patents

Patents apply to industrial processes and inventions, and protect against the unauthorised implementation of the invention.

Patents are grants made by national governments that give the creator of an invention an exclusive right to use, sell or manufacture the invention. Like trademarks, patents are registered at a national or territory level with an appointed government body. Patents typically take 2 to 3 years to be granted.

More information

For more information about registering copyright work, please see our copyright registration pages.

For more information about patents, trademarks and registered design, or to apply for your own patent or trademark, you should contact your national patent or trademark office.

Links to patent and trademark offices