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Guide to Protecting Your Intellectual Property

Intellectual property law doesn't need to be overwhelming. Here's a walkthrough of the different types of intellectual property and the documents you can use to protect and defend your ideas from intellectual property infringement.

Essential documents for protecting information

Innovators and inventors use these documents every day to protect their ideas and interests.

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Step 1

Non-Disclosure Agreement

A Non-Disclosure Agreement is used to protect sensitive information that is shared between two parties during an agreement.

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Step 2

Confidentiality Agreement

A Confidentiality Agreement maintains privacy during agreements when confidential information is exchanged between two parties.

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Step 3

Cease & Desist

A cease and Desist Letter is a letter used to demand another person to cease violating your copyright, to make creditors stop harassing you or to dema...

Last updated June 15, 2022

Much like material possessions, intangible assets can have value. One category of such assets is intellectual property. Intellectual property refers to creations of the mind and includes ideas, inventions, and designs.

If you have a valuable creation, you must take steps to discourage others from stealing or misusing it.

This article will define intellectual property and discuss its various types, including copyrights, trade marks, patents, industrial designs, and trade secrets. We will explain how to protect your intellectual property, discourage others from stealing your work, what to do if someone infringes upon your rights, and much more.

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property (IP) refers to original creations of the mind. We are constantly surrounded by intellectual property without even realising it. We use and enjoy literary and artistic works, branded products, software, designs, and inventions - all of which are intellectual property.

Intellectual property is different from physical property. For example, a car is a physical piece of property. The car manufacturer's brand, name, logo, slogan, and innovative designs are intellectual property.

Original ideas and creations are rare. Therefore, intellectual property can be valuable and profitable. But unlike physical property, intellectual property can't be protect under lock and key once it has entered the public domain. Therefore, it is essential to understand intellectual property rights to proect your products and creations from misuse and theft.

Types of intellectual property rights

There are four primary types of intellectual property protection: copyright, registered designs, trade marks, and patents. Intellectual property rights aim to discourage and prevent theft and infringement so owners can rightfully profit from their intellectual assets.

Some rights are automatic, and some require an application to register the intellectual property with the appropriate office.

Type of protection Examples of intellectual property
No registration required
Automatic protection
Copyright Photography, music recordings, and literary works
Design right (unregistered designs) A car design’s unique shape and contour
Registration required
Apply for protection
Registered designs
Trade mark* Company names and logos
Patents Inventions

*In the UK, unregistered trade marks may still have some protection. Businesses can use common law rights to protect their unregistered trade marks against passing off (i.e., when a person or business imitates the branding of their goods or services as those of another established business).

Using multiple types of intellectual property rights

Sometimes, using more than one type of intellectual property protection for a single creation or product is necessary. For example, suppose you invent a coffee cup that keeps liquids hotter than any other cup on the market due to an innovative new working part. In this case, you can:

  • Patent the new working part that prevents heat loss
  • Register your brand name and logo as trade marks
  • Register the cup’s unique shape as a registered design
  • Use your copyright to protect photographs of the cup

Copyright is the sole right to produce and copy an original written, artistic, dramatic, or musical work. The concept of copyright was developed to protect creators and ensure that they could profit from their original work. It would be difficult to prevent people and companies from profiting from others’ creations without copyright law.

Many different types of original creative works can be protected by copyright, including:

  • Artistic works, such as art, sculptures, and illustrations
  • Dramatic works, such as musicals and plays
  • Film and television recordings, such as movies
  • Literary works, such as books
  • Music recordings, such as songs
  • Photography
  • Software
  • Sound recordings
  • Web content

There are exceptions to what copyright covers. For example, copyright doesn't cover procedures, methods of operation, or mathematical concepts. Also, only the expression of ideas in a material form is protected by copyright, not the ideas themselves.

To best understand how copyright works and protects you and your creations, examine these five takeaways:

  1. Copyright is established automatically once you have established your work in a tangible form.
  2. Copyright does not require registration or an application for protection.
  3. Copyright gives you legal rights to prevent others from copying or misusing your work.
  4. Copyright grants you a cause of action if an unauthorised party infringes on your right, allowing you to seek an injunction to stop the infringement or damages to compensate for your loss.
  5. Copyright can be licensed and sold. Copyright is an asset, so it can be sold to another party. Alternatively, you can license the use of your copyrighted work to interested parties for specific uses. For example, musical artists sometimes license the use of their songs to advertisers.

The first step in protecting your copyright is by using the international copyright symbol (©). You can mark your work with the copyright symbol, the publication year, and your name (e.g., © 2022 LawDepot).

Marking your work with the copyright symbol communicates to people and companies that they cannot copy or misuse your work. Also, marking your work with your name identifies you as the owner, making it easier for other parties to reach you if they want to ask to license or buy your work.

Even though there isn't a government-run copyright registry in the UK, you can still register your copyright work for additional protection and legitimacy. For example, you can register with worldwide services like The UK Copyright Service or Copyright House.

In the United Kingdom, copyright is governed by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (CDPA) 1988.

The United Kingdom is also a part of some international agreements, such as the Berne Convention, which mandates that countries recognize copyrights held by the citizens of all other countries that are a part of the convention. Currently, 179 countries around the world are signatories to the agreement.

Copyright infringement is the use, production, or reproduction of a copyrighted creation without the copyright owner's authorisation. Copyright infringement may occur when an unauthorised party:

  • Copies your work
  • Sells, distributes, or rents out copies of your work
  • Performs, displays, or plays your work in public
  • Adapts your work

For example, if someone starts printing and selling copies of an author’s novel, they infringe on the author’s copyright. Another typical example is the unauthorised use of copyright-protected music. If a production studio wants to use a musical artist’s song recording in a film, they need permission or a licence from the artist.

If someone infringes on your copyrighted work, send them a Cease and Desist Letter. If they do not comply, you can take legal action against them.

The length of time in which copyright protection lasts is known as the duration of copyright. According to GOV.UK, the duration of copyright depends on the following factors:

  • The type of work
  • The author of the work
  • The date when the work was created or published

In terms of how the type of work affects the duration of copyright, there are clear distinctions. For example, written, dramatic, musical, and artistic works are protected from the date of creation until 70 years after the creator’s death. Sound and music recordings, on the other hand, are protected for 70 years from when they are first published.

Once a copyright has expired, anyone can use or copy the work. For more information about how the author and date of creation or publication affect copyright protection, you can read more about duration of copyright.

Registered designs

What are registered designs?

In regards to intellectual property, the design of a product refers to how it looks, rather than its construction or function. How a product looks is also referred to as its “industrial design.” The look of a product may include its appearance, physical shape, configuration, and decoration.

In the UK, “registered designs” are those that are registered with the Intellectual Property Office (IPO). Registering designs ensures that you are protected against unauthorised parties appropriating or misusing your work.

Why are registered designs important?

The ability to register designs is important in protecting the interests of creators. A product’s unique appearance can create public familiarity with a brand or business, giving the owner a competitive advantage. Therefore, it is important that creators and owners can protect their designs through registration and prevent others from unfairly profiting from the goodwill their product or brand has accrued.

Ensuring that creators have the sole right to produce their designs promotes competition, resulting in diverse looking products in the marketplace.

How does registering a design offer protection?

It is much easier to protect your design and prevent others from infringing on your work when you register it. Registering your design:

  • Creates a record of your original designs
  • Authenticates your exclusive right to use your design
  • Gives you the right to prevent infringement for up to 25 years
  • Allows you to display a registration number on your designs so others are deterred from copying your design
  • Helps you if you have to take legal action against someone for design infringement
  • Allows you to license or sell it

How to register a design in the UK

Complete the following steps to register your design:

  1. Check that your design qualifies for registration. Your design must be new and belong to you. It cannot be offensive or use protected emblems or flags.
  2. Prepare illustrations of your design and consider any limitations or disclaimers.
  3. Apply online and submit your illustrations.
  4. If your application is approved, your design will be registered immediately (the IPO examines applications within four weeks).

Remember that you can only register how a product looks as a registered design. You cannot register the functionality of a product as a registered design. To register how something works, you need a patent.

How to protect your design internationally

Registering a design in the United Kingdom does not protect it internationally. To gain protection abroad, you have to register your design in other countries by pursuing one of the following options:

How much does it cost to register a design?

When you register designs online, the price depends on the number of designs that you are submitting in an application.

Number of designs Cost
1 £50
2–10 £70
11–20 £90
21–30 £110
31–40 £130
41–50 £150

UK laws for registered designs

In the United Kingdom, registered designs are governed by the Registered Designs Act 1949 and the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (CDPA) 1988.

The United Kingdom is also a part of some international treaties, such as the Hague Agreement, which allows applicants to protect their designs in multiple countries by only filing a single application with the International Bureau of WIPO.

Registered design infringement

When someone uses your registered design without your authorisation, they have infringed on your exclusive right to use your design.

Although you register your design with IPO, the office does regulate cases of infringement. You are responsible for ensuring that no other party is stealing or misusing your design.

If you encounter a situation where a party is infringing on your rights, start by sending them a Cease and Desist Letter. If they continue to infringe upon your rights or their actions have already caused you financial loss, you can use a mediator or take legal action against them.

How long are registered designs protected?

Registered designs can have up to 25 years of protection. After you initially register your design, you must renew your registration every five years. You can renew your design registration up to a maximum of five times. In total, this means you can have up to 25 years of protection.

How can you protect unregistered designs?

Some aspects of unregistered designs may be automatically protected by UK law. For example, in some cases, the shapes of objects may be automatically protected by design right. Design right can prevent unauthorised parties from using them. Since these rights are automatic, you do not have to apply for them or pay any fees.

You can protect unregistered designs when sharing or disclosing your design (or images of your design) to third parties. Suppose you have not registered your industrial design, and you need to share it with a third party person, such as a potential collaborator or employee. In that case, you can use a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) or Confidentiality Agreement to ensure the third party person does not disclose or further share your design.

Trade mark

What is a trade mark?

A trade mark is something distinguishable and unique that identifies a company, individual, or organisation. A trade mark could be a word, combination of words or letters, symbol, or distinguishing quality.

Trade marks protect a company’s brand identity. Furthermore, they help create brand value by distinguishing goods or services from competitors.

What can be considered a trade mark?

Many different things can be protected by trade marks once they are sufficiently distinctive. On the other hand, elements of a product which are too generic, to the extent they cannot be uniquely identified with the brand in question do not qualify as trade marks. For example, a single colour or a single letter will not qualify. Once the standard of distinctiveness is met, trade marks can protect:

  • Words, such as company names, phrases, and slogans
  • Combinations of letters and/or numerals
  • Symbols, such as a company logo
  • Designs
  • Specific colour combinations or patterns
  • Sounds
  • Shapes or packaging of goods

How do trade marks work?

To best understand how trade marks work and protect owners, examine these takeaways:

  1. Statutory trade mark protection requires registration under the Trade Marks Act and is not automatic.
  2. Trade marks give you legal rights to prevent others from copying or misusing your work.
  3. Trade marks allow you to take legal action, such as seeking damages or a court injunction if an unauthorised party uses your trade mark.
  4. Trade marks can be licensed and sold. To give up your trade mark, you can sell it to another party.

How to register a trade mark in the UK

To register a trade mark in the UK, follow these steps:

  1. Check that your trade mark qualifies for registration.
  2. Search the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) database and check if a similar trade mark to your brand already exists.
  3. Apply to register your trade mark.

Once you have registered your trade mark, you can put the ® symbol next to your brand. Having the registered trade mark next to your brand logo shows legitimacy and deters others from using it.

Registering your trade mark domestically can stop others from making, selling or using your invention in the UK, but has no influence elsewhere. Therefore, there are separate steps you can take to protect trade marks abroad.

Trade mark law

In the United Kingdom, trade marks are governed by the Trade Marks Act 1994, which ensures that you have the exclusive right to use your trade mark throughout the UK when properly registered.

In practice, trade marks are not always registered. However, you may still have protection for unregistered trade marks under common law. Therefore, if you do not register a trade mark, such as your company’s operating name, and someone starts using it, you may still be able to take legal action against them.

Trade mark infringement

Trade mark infringement is the use of a trade mark without the owner’s authorisation. For example, producing, importing, or selling "knock-offs” of a specific fashion brand without permission is trade mark infringement.

Trade mark infringement can also occur if an unauthorised party is using a confusingly similar trade mark. This infringement is also known as ‘passing off,’ which is the civil wrong of deceptively representing your product as the product of a more well-known brand and thereby unfairly profiting from the goodwill of that business.

If someone infringes on your trade mark rights, you can send them a Cease and Desist Letter. If they do not comply, you may be able to take legal action against them.


What is a patent?

A patent is a type of intellectual property protection that gives an inventor exclusive rights to their invention or innovation. Unlike copyright, which is automatic, patents must be applied for by the creator and certain requirements must be met.

You can obtain a patent for the following types of intellectual property:

  • Products, drugs, compositions, or machines
  • Improvements to inventions, designs, and processes
  • Processes or methods
  • Software

For a patent to be granted, the invention or innovation must be new, inventive, and useful. Things like concepts, discoveries, scientific theories or principles, and medical treatments cannot be patented.

What is the purpose of patents?

The purpose of patent law is to protect inventors and innovators. Patent law ensures that people can benefit from their creations without another party stealing their ideas. The ensured benefit encourages competition and innovation in many industries.

Patents are essential components of certain industries, such as the pharmaceutical industry, where a new product must undergo years of research and development followed by regulatory approval before it can start to provide a return on its investment. Patents enable that process by ensuring no unauthorised parties may profit from all that work, and thus can be very valuable.

UK patent law

In the United Kingdom, patents are governed by the Patents Act 1977 and the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (CDPA) 1988. These acts ensure that when a creator obtains a patent, they have the exclusive right to their patent for a set time in the UK. Because the application process can take an extended amount of time, the first applicant to file a patent application for an invention is the one entitled to obtain exclusive rights for that invention.

How to obtain a patent in the UK

Once you know what types of things can and cannot be patented, you can begin the process of acquiring a patent. To apply for a patent in the UK, follow these steps:

  1. Search patent databases to ensure your invention or idea is not already patented.
  2. Keep your invention confidential. If you need to discuss your invention with someone, such as a potential business partner or manufacturer, before you have patent approval, ask them to sign an NDA or Confidentiality Agreement.
  3. Consider hiring a professional advisor. You may need to hire a patent attorney or other professional IP advisor to help you through the patent application process.
  4. Prepare and file a patent application with the IPO. If you have a professional patent attorney, they will help you prepare your application. Applications should include a written description of your invention, drawings, claims about distinctive technical features, and an abstract.

How to obtain a patent abroad

A patent granted in the United Kingdom prevents others from making, selling, or using your invention within the UK, but has no influence internationally. Therefore, anyone can legally produce and sell your invention abroad if you do not seek international protection.

To gain protection abroad, you have to apply for patents in other countries by pursuing one of the following options:

How much do patents cost?

According to GOV.UK, creating a patent application typically costs around £4,000. However, maintaining a patent and paying for renewals will be additional costs to consider.

How long does a patent last?

In the UK, you can renew your patent for up to a maximum of 20 years. Afterwards, other parties can freely use the patented invention, design, process, or improvement.

Rewarding inventors for their innovations is essential, but it is also important to encourage societal innovation and market competition. If a patent is in effect for too long, one creator may have a monopoly in a particular area or industry which harms consumers. Furthermore, if patents last too long, other inventors may be held back from inventing further innovations.

Patent infringement

Patent infringement is when someone creates, uses, or sells patented intellectual property without the patent holder's permission or licence. The UK’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is not responsible for enforcing your patent rights. When an unauthorised party infringes on your patent, it is your responsibility to take action. Alternatively, an exclusive or non-exclusive licensee can also take action against the unauthorised party.

Sometimes, a patent owner can easily rectify patent infringement by sending the unauthorised party a Cease and Desist Letter, pointing out the existence of the patent and demanding they stop their behaviour immediately. If they continue their behaviour, or if their actions have already caused the patent owner too much harm, legal action would be the next step.

If you discuss your invention with someone, such as a potential collaborator or investor, but have not secured a patent yet, use a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) or Confidentiality Agreement to protect your idea. An NDA contractually binds the other party not to share or misuse the confidential information.

Be proactive with protecting your intellectual property

Whether you've branded your company, made a groundbreaking invention, or created a useful computer program, being proactive in protecting your creations will help you fully capitalise on your intellectual property.

If you're going to discuss your work with an external party, always utilise a Non-Disclosure Agreement or Confidentiality Agreement before sharing any confidential information.

Under common law, as seen with copyrights and unregistered trade marks, some IP protection is automatic. In other cases, such as patents and registered trade marks, you have to register your creation to receive statutory protection.  When you know your intellectual property is valuable, it is essential that you register your interest with the appropriate organisation for optimal protection.