• Ellie Atayee-Bennett

Intellectual Property Basics

What is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property, as the name suggests, relates to the mind and something you own. Intellectual property, or IP, therefore refers to anything you create that was inspired by your mind, for example a literary work, a piece of art, a logo, an invention, and so on.

Under UK law, you have rights over your creations, and these rights are called Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).

There are a number of different types of IPR, with the main ones shown below. Some need to be registered, whilst others are granted automatically.

Must be registered:

Patents

Trademarks

Registered Design Rights

Automatically granted:

Unregistered Design Rights

Copyright

Trade Secrets

Where the automatically granted rights are concerned, be sure to keep records of your work so you can prove that they're your idea, should you ever need to provide evidence.


Why does a doctoral researcher need to know about IPR?

As part of their doctoral degree, a doctoral researcher produces works that would be defined as intellectual property e.g. a thesis and journal articles. Some researchers may also produce inventions, or commercialise their research, and so other forms of intellectual property rights may become applicable too. Since copyright affects us all, I will cover copyright in more depth in a subsequent blog post. In this blog post however, I will briefly explore the different types of IPR so you are aware of what they are.

Patents

Patents must be registered and they relate to inventions e.g. a machine or a pharmaceutical drug. A patent is a legal title granting patent holders exclusive rights to the production and distribution of the invention for up to 20 years. In order to obtain this right, you have to disclose details of your invention to the public, however. Three points must be satisfied in the patent process. The invention must be:

  • New - it must not be known by anyone else in the world. This means you cannot publish, discuss, or share your invention in any public forum prior to applying.

  • Inventive - your invention cannot be obvious to a skilled individual in your field. That is to say it must have required considerable expertise or thought to develop.

  • Possible - It must be possible to make your invention and it must be able to perform the function described in the application.

If these three points are not satisfied, you will not be granted the patent. Patents are expensive and time-consuming to acquire (they can cost a few thousand pounds and can take up to 5 years to acquire), so think carefully before making an application.


Trademarks

Trademarks must also be registered and they protect intellectual property, such as logos, slogans, brand names, product names, theme tunes, sounds, colours and shapes. Trademarks can be protected forever but they must be renewed every 10 years. They can only be renewed if it can be proved that the trademark is still in use and the relevant fee is paid. When applying for a trademark, you will need to be specific about what your goods or services are and identify the classes to which they apply (there are 45 classes to choose from). For example, if you are selling sweets, you would register your trademark under the class that covers confectionary. If your goods or services fall under several classes, you may want to register your trademark under all the relevant classes. Do note however, that other people may register similar trademarks to yours in a different class. This is legal as the classes are not connected.



Design Rights

Design rights refers to the appearance of something e.g. shape, colour, lines, etc. There are two types of design rights - registered and unregistered. Registered design rights last 25 years, although they must be renewed every 5 years. During this time, nobody else is allowed to use your design. Unregistered design rights are automatically granted, however they only last for up to 15 years. Designs must be new, your own design, and relate to the appearance, shape, or arrangement of the item. Designs cannot relate to protected emblems such as flags or symbols, and they must not be offensive in any way.

Copyright

I will cover copyright in greater depth in a subsequent blog post, as this is so important for researchers and writers. But I will offer a brief summary here. Copyright covers any piece of work you create, including literary works, dramatical works, music, artistic works, films and broadcasts, reports, apps, computer code, games, websites, and so on. Copyright is automatically granted. It is therefore a good idea to keep a record of when the item was created, for example by having a saved copy on a digital device. Although not necessary, it's a good idea to write "©" followed by your name and the year of production on any work you produce. Copyrighted works cannot be copied or shared by anyone without the copyright holder's permission. Copyright is held either by the creator of the works or their employer if the works was created as part of one's employment; this is common for university staff. There are different lengths of time for which copyright lasts, but generally it is 70 years after the creator's death. Note: copyright does not protect the idea, it protects the expression of the idea in a creative format.


Trade Secrets

Trade secrets refers to the essential information that is kept secret within a business to obtain a commercial advantage. This could include a recipe or a process. Trade secrets do not need to be registered as they are granted automatically, but you should not share the information with anyone outside the business. In some cases, it may be appropriate to make people sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to ensure they don't share your secrets.

Further Resources

In the UK, IPR is managed by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO). Their website is found here.

The IPO also provide many useful resources on IPR for free, which can be accessed by registering here. I strongly recommend the IP Tutor course.

Vitae have also collated a useful set of links relating to IPR, which can be found here.