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Know your rights

From an initial idea to its arrival on the market, follow the Intellectual Property Office's guide to protecting your innovation

As a first line of defence, you can spin a legal web around your ideas at no upfront cost.

The law gives you more automatic protection for your points of difference and your creative works than you might realise. You do not have to apply for these rights. They are already there. No fees. No fuss. No formalities. But these rights are soft. To use them, you have to prove that a copy has actually been made and that you were the original creator. If you want to be unambiguous about your claim to an idea, then you have to register it.

However, soft rights are a valuable strand in creating a web that protects your exclusivity. In English law, you can make several claims to counter one act of copying and ask for a number of different steps to be taken to address it.


Foremost among these free rights is copyright. Without making any extra effort, you enjoy protection for an original work for your lifetime plus between 20 and 70 years. It is not the actual idea that is covered. Instead, copyright protects its translations into different physical forms ? for example, documents, scripts, plans, code, brands, logos. For databases and listings, an additional form of protection is available to guard against anyone using the information that you have assembled.

As a naturally-occurring phenomenon, copyright can float around dangerously. Unless you agree otherwise, your IT suppliers will hold the rights to your software and your advertising agency will retain control of the creative content in your campaign. So make sure it is assigned to you.


Once you are in production, copyright reaches its limits. Here you have to rely on design rights. On an unregistered basis, these protect the appearance or configuration of a product for 10 years in the UK and three years in the EU. You do not have to choose. Both rights exist alongside each other. For more durable protection, you can register your designs with the EU at a fraction of the cost of a patent. Alternatively, you might choose to rely on another set of soft rights: confidentiality and trade secrets. There is no law to which these relate. They depend on decades of court rulings.

You can protect the release of sensitive information by asking third parties, such as investors and suppliers, to sign a non-disclosure agreement. However, it is not a failsafe. The courts will take a view on the quality of information that has been leaked and how far it has already been distributed. The danger in relying on trade secrets to protect inventions and modifications is that once the secret is out, then it can never be recovered. Or if someone else develops it, they can patent it and gain the exclusive rights to market it. However, you might consider combining the two rights by applying for a patent for your core technology, but then protecting your knowledge of the way it works through a trade secret.


Once your goods are on the market, there is another soft right that you can use to knock back any competitors based on the strength of your name. An unregistered trade mark (?) gives you the power to bring an action against anyone passing themselves off as you, as long as you can prove that your customers are being confused. Even if a national brand has the same identity as you, you can continue trading alongside each other on your patch. But when you want to expand into other areas, you may find yourself blocked if someone else has already applied for the name. By putting ? against your brand or trading name, it does show that you are serious about fighting any attempts to mislead your customers.


For stronger protection, you can always consider registering your rights. If you are breaking frontiers in your industry, then consider applying for a patent. It will give you exclusivity for 20 years on innovations that are industrially applicable. You do not have to make a huge inventive leap to obtain a patent. Even by protecting minor technical solutions, you can oblige your competitors to produce their goods less efficiently than they otherwise might like.

Holding a patent helps financially, too. As well as raising your standing with investors, you can earn royalties by allowing people in fields unrelated to what you do to use your technology. Shape, decoration, pattern, texture and colour are usually the reasons why consumers pull your goods off the shelf, as opposed to someone else?s. For £60, you can register a distinctive design and protect your outward appearance for five years. Unlike copyright, you do not have to prove you have been copied. You are free to stamp on any design that even unwittingly resembles yours.

Reputations can take years to build. Trade marks stop anyone else cashing in on the trust and goodwill that consumers associate with your name. By registering your trade mark, you can swiftly stop anyone from trying to confuse customers by using a similar name as yours and from exploiting your main marketing asset ? your brand. More often than not, you will use a combination of these rights to protect your goods at each point on the cycle of development, production and distribution. Taken together, they will give you significant legal and commercial clout.


The UK Intellectual Property Office is an Executive Agency of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). We are the official government body responsible for the establishment and maintenance of the national framework of intellectual property rights. These IP rights include Patents, Trade marks, Designs and Copyright. We are also responsible for raising awareness of IP across the UK to business and education audiences.

For more information, contact our
Central Enquiry Unit on:
Tel: 08459 500505

Added the 17 September 2008 in category Innovation UK Vol4-1

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