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Understanding intellectual property

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

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If you have an invention or idea, it’s important that you understand your intellectual property and how to exploit it. There are four main types: patents, trademarks, copyright and registered designs.

What is a patent?

A patent for an invention is granted by government to the inventor, giving the inventor the right to stop others, for a limited period, from making, using or selling the invention without their permission. When a patent is granted the invention becomes the property of the inventor, which like any other form of property or business asset can be bought, sold, rented or hired. Patents are territorial rights: a UK patent will only give the holder rights in the UK and rights to stop others from importing the patented products into the UK.

What is a trademark?

Trademarks are badges of origin. They distinguish the goods or services of one trader from another and can take many forms; for example words, slogans, logos, shapes, colours and sounds. Trademarks are registered for specific goods or services within individual subjects, known as classes. It is possible for others to register identical or similar marks as long as it is in a different, unconnected class. For example, Swan rental cars, Swan matches and Swan electrics. There are 45 classes to choose from, a list can be found here. They should not be descriptive and must not include common surnames, geographical names, registered company names or anything implying royal patronage.

What is copyright?

Copyright normally protects the work created by, or 'originated' with, their author. There must have been some skill, labour or judgment in the creation of the work and in the case of a database it must be the author's own intellectual creation. For instance, there is no copyright in straight photocopies or in direct transcriptions, because these are not 'original', but if the original work is in copyright, unless you have permission of the copyright owner, or the law specifically permits it, it would be an infringement of copyright to make copies or direct transcriptions. The first owner will normally be the author. In most cases, the author is the person who created the work: the composer of the text or the music, the artist, the photographer. There are certain exceptions to this, especially in the case of photographs, films and recorded sound. Also note that the author may have licensed or assigned the rights to a third party, often the publisher or commissioner of the work.

What is a registered design?

Registered Designs are for the eye appeal of an object. They are applied for at The Intellectual Property Office. Britain also has a ‘Design Right’ providing automatic protection for 15 years from the date of creation, even when a registered design is not applied for. Before July 1989 design protection ran for five years from the date of application, and then was renewable for a second five year term and then a final five year term, giving a total of 15 years. From August 1989, registered designs have a maximum of 25 years protection subject to renewal fees. From 1842 to 1883 there were two series of designs, Ornamental and Non Ornamental, they can be found in ‘The National Archives.

The Library offers a range of databases and publications to help you with your intellectual property including:

  • Electronic databases: Search patents, trademarks, copyright and registered designs from across the world via databases such as the Derwent Innovations Index and Esp@cenet.

  • British Library patent and trade mark collection: Find out what documentation we hold on intellectual property, covering countries across the world.

  • Explore the British Library: Search the Library’s catalogue for books relating to IP.

  • Essentials Guide for Inventors: What you need to know to protect and commercialise your ideas. An invaluable list compiled by the British Library of websites, publications and databases.

Need some help? One-to-one advice: Book a session with one of our business and IP experts to talk through your ideas.

Training workshops: View our events page to see our workshops on intellectual property.

Intellectual Property Office (IPO): The IPO's website includes detailed information on patents, trade marks, registered designs and copyright and has a range of online resources.

This article first appeared on the British Library’s Business & IP Centre website. View here.

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