Understanding and Protecting Intellectual Property

‘Creations of the mind’, such as designs, brand names, inventions, musical recordings, videos, written works and artworks, are known as ‘intellectual property’.

Although intellectual property is particularly important to creative businesses, almost every business has some intellectual property that it uses to sell its goods or services, for example a brand name or logo. You have legal rights to stop other people using your intellectual property without your permission.

In this guide, we introduce the different types of intellectual property and explain how you can use them to protect your business and ideas.

Intellectual property rights in the UK


Copyright protects the following types of original work:

  • Literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work, including illustration and photography.
  • Non-literary written work, such as software, web content and databases.
  • Sound and music recordings.
  • Film and television recordings.
  • Broadcasts.
  • The layout of published editions of written, dramatic and musical works.

If you create an original work, you automatically own the copyright. This means you don’t need to fill in any forms or pay any fees for copyright protection. Unless you give permission, your copyrighted work must not be copied, distributed, performed or displayed, adapted or uploaded to the internet.

It’s sensible to mark your copyright work with the international copyright symbol ©, followed by your name and the publication date. This can remind others that your work is covered by copyright. While this is not legally required in the UK or most other countries, it may help you if you ever find yourself taking action for copyright infringements.


Patents protect inventions that are capable of being made or used industrially, such as a new device, material or manufacturing process. Patents prevent anyone from making, using, selling, importing or exporting your invention without your permission.

It is a good idea to consider applying to the Intellectual Property Office for a patent if you develop a new invention that could be commercially valuable.

You should make sure your invention is really new before applying for a patent. This way, you can avoid wasting time and money trying to patent an existing invention. Find out more about how to search for existing patents.

Understanding and Protecting Intellectual Property

Design rights

Design rights protect the ‘design’ of your product, meaning the unique appearance created by your choice of features such as shape, colour and decoration. There are two types of design right:

  • ‘Unregistered design right’, which only protects the three-dimensional features of your design, (meaning its shape and ‘configuration’).
  • ‘Registered design right’, which protects two-dimensional design features such as colours and surface patterns, as well as three-dimensional features.

You are automatically protected by unregistered design right as soon as you create your product design. However, if you want the additional protection of registered design right you have to apply to the Intellectual Property Office.

Trade marks

A trade mark is a recognisable word, phrase, symbol or design that you use to distinguish your goods or services from those of another business.

You can apply to register your trade mark with the Intellectual Property Office. This prevents anyone from using it in relation to similar goods and services without your permission. Once your trade mark is registered, you can sell, franchise or licence it to others.

Database right

You may have spent a lot of time, effort and money gathering information that is commercially valuable for your business. Information that you store and organise in a way that allows you to search and analyse each item of data is known as a database. You are automatically protected by database right if you have ‘substantially invested’ in obtaining or checking information and systematically arranging it in a database. You can use your database right to stop anyone else using all or any substantial part of your database.

As well as granting intellectual property rights, the Intellectual Property Office is a useful source of advice, support and guidance. It provides a range of resources to help your business protect its intellectual property.

Understanding and Protecting Intellectual Property

Protecting intellectual property in other countries

In some cases, if you create intellectual property in the UK, you automatically have international rights that protect it in other countries.

For example:

  • An original work that is protected by copyright in the UK is automatically protected in countries that are members of international copyright conventions such as the Berne Convention and the Rome Convention.
  • If you create a design in the UK, it is automatically protected by ‘unregistered community design right’.

Other types of intellectual property right in the UK are not protected in other countries. This applies to patents, trade marks and ‘registered design right’. You will need to register your intellectual property in every country where you need protection to stop it being used without your permission. You can do this by making separate applications in each country. However, there are various international agreements that allow you to make a single application that covers multiple countries.

For example:

  • Under the Madrid Protocol, you can register your trade marks in almost 120 countries by making a single application to the World Intellectual Property Organization.
  • Under the Hague System, you can register your design in around 70 countries by making a single application to the World Intellectual Property Organization.
  • The European Patent Office accepts applications to register patents that apply throughout the European Union. Under the Patent Cooperation Treaty, it also handles applications for over 100 non-EU countries.
  • The European Union Intellectual Property Office accepts applications to register trade marks and designs throughout the EU.

For more information about how to protect intellectual property outside the UK, go to www.gov.uk/government/publications/protecting-your-uk-intellectual-property-abroad.

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DISCLAIMER While all reasonable efforts have been made, the publisher makes no warranties that this information is accurate and up-to-date and will not be responsible for any errors or omissions in the information nor any consequences of any errors or omissions. Professional advice should be sought where appropriate.

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