Intellectual property: the basics
Intellectual property (IP) refers to the creative outputs of the mind, for example, inventions, artistic works, symbols, names, etc. If you have a business, you are likely to own some type of IP.
IP assets can be tangible or intangible. Both can have substantial value and are therefore important to protect. You can use specific legal rights called intellectual property rights (IPRs) to protect your IP. These rights include copyright, trade marks, patents and design rights.
This guide explains the different types of intellectual property and where you can find them in your business. It tells you how to protect innovation and commercially exploit it through IPRs. By highlighting the advantages of protecting intellectual property, this guide aims to help you create value from your ideas.
New and young businesses can use our intellectual property checklist for start-ups to ensure that they adequately protect any intellectual property assets that they create.
Different types of intellectual property
Intellectual property (IP) exists in many forms. From the name of your business to an innovative new process or product, IP can help you stand out from your competitors, enhance your market value and turn ideas into profit-making assets.
Examples of intellectual property
Your business may already have a range of IP. IP can be any of the following:
- brands and logos
- product names
- inventions and products
- original software
- shape and appearance of a product
- other kinds of creative work
IP can be very valuable. There are businesses, such as computer games companies, that exist simply to develop intellectual property or even take advantage of it. The type of IP protection you can get depends on what you have created.
Types of intellectual property rights
There are four main types of IP rights:
- trade marks
It is important to understand the how these types of IP can apply - their differences, similarities and advantages to your business. You can carry out an intellectual property audit to determine what IP assets you have and how valuable they are to your business.
See how to protect intellectual property or read about the different types of legal protection for intellectual property rights.
You can also browse our detailed guides on patents, trade marks, copyright and design.
Find out what IP you own
The Intellectual Property Office's IP for Business toolkit can help you manage your intellectual property. It comprises:
- a free e-learning tool with four short modules on main types of IP rights
- a free smartphone app with access to IP information on the go
- a free online health-check tool offering a confidential report tailored to your business
- IP masterclass for business professionals
You can also watch the IPO's video below to gain a greater understanding of IP basics.
Advantages of protecting intellectual property
Intellectual property (IP) rights don't protect ideas or concepts. They protect genuine business assets that can be vital to your products or services, or the success and profitability of your business.
There are many advantages to securing your intellectual property rights. For example, protecting your IP can help you:
- Enhance the market value of your business - IP can generate income for your business through licensing, sale or commercialisation of protected products or services. This can, in turn, improve your market share or raise your profits. In case of sale, merger or acquisition, having registered and protected IP assets can raise the value of your business.
- Turn ideas into profit-making assets - Ideas on their own have little value. However, IP can help you to turn ideas into commercially successful products and services. Licensing your patents or copyright, for example, can lead to a steady stream of royalties and additional income that can boost your business' bottom line.
- Market your business' products and services - IP is essential in creating an image for your business. Think trade marks, logos or the design of your products. IP can help you differentiate your products and services in the market and promote them to your customers.
- Access or raise finance for your business - You can monetise your IP assets through sale, licensing or using them as collateral for debt financing. As well as this, you can use your IP as an advantage when applying for public or government funding, eg grants, subsidies or loans.
- Enhance export opportunities for your business - IP can increase your competitiveness in export markets. You can use brands and designs to market goods and services abroad, seek franchising agreements with overseas companies, or export your patented products.
While some IP rights are automatic, others will need formal application and registration before you can claim them. Read more about the different types of intellectual property and the importance of protecting intellectual property.
You can also watch the Intellectual Property Office's video below that explains why IP is important to your business.
How to protect intellectual property
Most businesses create and own some type of intellectual property (IP). Depending on what you create, you can use patents, trade marks, design right and registration, or copyright to protect your intellectual property assets.
Different rules apply to different types of intellectual property.
Patents protect inventions, including the features and processes that make things work. You have to apply for and register a patent to secure protection. Find out more about IP rights: patents.
Copyright protects published artistic work, including writing, film, music and computer software. Unlike most other forms of IP, copyright applies automatically when the work is first published. Read more about IP rights: copyright.
Trade marks are signs that distinguish between goods and services (eg words, logos, brand names, pictures, shapes, sound etc). You don't have to register a trade mark to use it, but registration grants you exclusive rights for its use. Read more about IP rights: trade marks.
A design refers to the features of shape, configuration, pattern or ornamentation that give a product their unique appearance. You can protect designs through automatic unregistered design rights or design registration. Find out more about IP rights: designs.
Depending on the IP assets that you wish to protect, you may also want to look at:
- digital intellectual property and your business
- confidentiality agreements
- non-disclosure agreements
Find more tips and advice on protecting intellectual property.
IP rights: patents
Patents are one of the four basic intellectual property (IP) rights. Patents protect the methods and processes that make things work. There are strict rules that determine what you can and can't patent.
Can you patent an idea in the UK?
You cannot patent an abstract idea. You must be able to put the idea into practice, eg turn it into an invention, in order for it to be patentable.
You can only patent an invention if it is:
- new - not already known to the public before the date a patent is applied for
- inventive - not an obvious modification of what is already known
- capable of industrial application - ie can be made or used in any kind of industry
For examples of what you can and can't patent, see can I patent my idea or invention.
How do you get a patent?
To protect your right to exclusive use of your invention, you must apply for a patent. Patent application procedures can be complicated and take significant time. Some inventions may need more than one patent to secure full protection. You may also need to seek patent protection in more than one territory.
Find out how to apply for a patent.
Patent attorneys can help you search for existing patents, prepare patent applications and make sure that you are not infringing anyone else's intellectual property rights.
Patents are a valuable form of intellectual property, and like all property, you should protect them. If you have a patent and someone uses it without permission, you have the right to claim for compensation. Read more about patent protection and enforcement.
For a quick introduction to patents, watch the Intellectual Property Office video below.
IP rights: copyright
Copyright is an automatic intellectual property (IP) right that you get when you create an original piece of written or recorded literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work.
Copyright applies to any medium and can cover many types of work. See examples in what does copyright cover. If you create a lot of original work, copyright can generate important income for your business. Read about your economic rights from owning copyright.
How to use copyright?
If you own a copyright, you can decide whether to:
- allow other businesses or people to use the copyrighted work
- allow work to be copied, adapted, published, performed or broadcast
- allow other businesses to use work for a royalty or licence fee
- sell the copyright
If someone you employ creates copyrighted work for you during their normal course of employment, you will own the copyright unless you agree otherwise. It is possible for two or more people to be joint creators and/or joint owners of copyright.
How can you copyright your work?
To help protect your work, you should mark it with:
- the © symbol
- the name of the copyright owner
- the year in which the work was created
For a quick introduction to copyright, watch the Intellectual Property Office video below.
IP rights: trade marks
Trade marks are common intellectual property (IP) assets. They are signs used in trade to identify products and services in the market, or the business that supplies them.
What can be trademarked?
Trade marks can take many forms. They can be:
- a combination of these elements
You may not be able to register all your identifying marks as trade marks. There are rules on what makes acceptable marks - see what is a trade mark.
What does having a trade mark mean?
For nearly all businesses, trade marks are highly valuable. They can protect your brand, prevent counterfeiting and fraud, and increase your recognition in the market place.
You can register your trade mark to get exclusive rights to use, licence, franchise or sell it. Trade marks are territorial rights, so bear in mind you may need to protect your mark in multiple markets if you trade overseas. See how to register a trade mark.
How to protect your trade marks
Whilst you don't have to register your trade mark to use it, registration will give you the strongest protection. Read more about protecting registered trade marks.
Even without registering your trade mark, you may still be able to take action against someone who uses your mark on their goods or services without your permission. This is known as 'passing off'.
For a quick introduction to trade marks, watch the Intellectual Property Office video below.
IP rights: designs
A design protects the visual appearance of a product or a part of a product. This appearance can be affected by shape, contour, arrangement, textures, materials and colours.
How to protect your designs
There are two ways of protecting your design in the UK:
- by design right - which is automatic and protects only the shape and configuration of a three-dimensional item
- by registered design - which gives you total rights of ownership over the appearance of a product or a part of the product, and protects both three-dimensional and two-dimensional features of a design
You must avoid infringing on another owner's design right. If you want to use someone else's design, you may be able to come to an arrangement with the rights owner.
For a quick introduction to design registration, watch the Intellectual Property Office video below.
Intellectual property checklist for start-ups
Even the smallest of start-ups have intellectual property (IP) worth protecting. From your business name to the innovative design of your product, you will have assets that set you apart from other businesses in the market. The importance of these IP assets will only grow as your business matures, so it is important to get things right from the start.
Our checklist below will give you an overview of some of the key IP considerations for start-up businesses, and the steps you should follow when setting out:
1. Carry out clearance searches - Before you invest time and money building up your business under a particular name, check that this name isn't already in use. Search for trade marks that are in use, both registered and unregistered, and remember to check names as well as logos. This will help avoid unnecessary conflict with any pre-existing rights. See how to search for trade marks.
2. Check if a domain name is available - Before you decide on your trade mark, you may want to check if a suitable domain name is available. You will want one that relates to your chosen trade mark and hasn't already been taken up. You may want to check for and register variants of your chosen domain name. Read more about domain name and trade mark conflicts.
3. Register your trade name, brand and logo - This will help secure your rights and protect your assets from misuse. Remember that trade marks are territorial, so you will need to register them in territories that are relevant to your business. Find more on trade marks.
4. Identify other types of IP assets you may have - As well as trade marks, you may have other types of intellectual property worth protecting. For example, design assets which you can register or innovative processes and equipment which you can patent. You should consider carrying out an intellectual property audit to help you identify the IP that you have and its value to your business.
5. Keep information confidential - Take care not to disclose information about any new ideas or inventions before you've applied for protection. This is especially important in case of patents, as disclosure can make your application invalid. Read about getting patent protection for your business. Consider different ways of securing confidential information - for example non-disclosure agreements.
6. Protect your unregistered IP - Certain rights arise automatically - ie you don't need to apply for protection. For example, copyright and unregistered design rights. Since there is no registration with these rights, it may be difficult to prove ownership or argue infringement if someone is misusing your rights. It's good practice to keep documented evidence about the creation of your work to prevent possible conflict in the future. See more on copyright for your business and design right and registration.
7. Avoid infringing other people's rights - If you wish to use IP rights that you don't own, make sure that you seek necessary permissions in advance. You can license the rights or buy them outright. Take great care not to infringe other people's rights, since this can lead to reputational damage, legal action as well as potential fines and penalties.
See more on protecting intellectual property.