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Intellectual property rights – a masterclass

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Intellectual property is the name given to a group of legal rights that protect people’s intellectual creations or inventions.

Intellectual property rights cover inventions, artistic works, music, designs and brands, amongst other things.

There are four main types of intellectual property rights: patents, trade marks, registered designs, and copyright.

Patents

A patent is a legally enforceable right granted by individual countries for a new invention.

A patent gives the owner the right to stop other people from making or using the invention for a limited period – typically 20 years from the date of applying for a patent. Patents are only available for inventions that are new, so it’s most important to keep an invention secret before a patent application is filed, so that the novelty of the invention is not destroyed by a non-confidential disclosure. In the US, the rules are different and you may still be able to get a patent even if your invention has recently been made available to the public.

In order to obtain a patent, a detailed description of how the invention works must be supplied to the patent office. This description is published normally 18 months after the patent application is filed, which means it is not possible to patent an invention and also keep it secret. Writing a patent specification is a skilled and complex task. If your invention is potentially valuable you should get a patent attorney to write your patent specification.

Trade marks

A trade mark is a distinctive sign or symbol – such as a name, logo, shape, colour, odour or sound – applied to the owner’s products or services and which distinguishes them from products or services provided by competitors.

Trade marks do not need to be officially registered but registration makes it much easier to prevent competitors from copying or damaging the reputation of your trade marks. The main requirements for registration are that the trade mark is distinctive for the products or services involved and that the trade mark is not the same or similar to an earlier trade mark for the relevant products or services.

In the UK a trademark registration can continue in force indefinitely if renewal fees are paid every ten years.

Copyright

Copyright is a legal right that protects against copying of original artistic, musical, literary, and similar works, including computer programs.

Copyright infringement protection arises automatically as soon as an original work is created and does not require an official registration. However, it is important to keep good records of the creator of the work and the date of creation, in case you ever need to show ownership of the right.

Copyright does not protect the underlying concepts in a book or document, for example, just the words that express that concept. How to copyright a logo UK

Design rights

Design rights work in a similar way to copyright to protect the appearance of an article.

In Europe, unregistered design rights arise automatically as soon as the article is created and lasts for three years from the first time the product is marketed. However, this right only protects against copying of the design.

It is possible to register designs and this gives up to 25 years of protection, if renewal fees are paid every five years. The advantage of a registered design is that it isn’t necessary to show that an infringer copied the design, just that the infringing product is sufficiently similar to the registered design.

Matt Dixon is a chartered patent attorney at the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys.

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