What is intellectual property?

In this new feature, Eureka has partnered with leading intellectual property law firm D Young & Co LLP to offer advice and information to help companies understand, use and protect their IP.

What is Intellectual Property? Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) are the intangible assets of a business. In the same way machine tools and stock are valuable assets so too are the intellectual property assets. The term Intellectual Property is an umbrella term covering different intellectual rights. These include patents, trade marks, designs, copyright, domain names and know-how. Some rights are obtained automatically on creation of the asset whilst others are obtained by applying to the government to register your rights. Three key rights are explained below: Patents A patent is a legal document that gives the owner the right to prevent other parties performing acts defined within the patent. It is not, as some think, a licence for you to do something. A patent is applied for centrally in the UK at the UK Intellectual Property Office normally with the help of a scientifically and legally trained patent attorney. It lasts for a maximum of 20 years and confers a monopoly over those rights whilst the patent is in force. Fees are paid annually to the government to maintain the right. If you stop paying the patent lapses and the technology is freely available for others to use. You can patent a product or a process in just about any technical field, including computer implemented inventions. It is essential that you do not disclose your invention outside of your company (or outside of a confidentiality agreement) before you file the application. Patents are country specific rights and international agreements allow companies to obtain corresponding rights in just about every country. A typical strategy involves filing a UK application then filing an international patent application called a PCT (an abbreviation of Patent Cooperation Treaty). The applicant then selects the countries of commercial interest and seeks patents in each one. Once granted, rights in each country or region can be licenced, sold or used to protect your commercial interests. The European Patent Office also provides a route to obtaining rights in most European countries by means of a European Patent Application. Trade Marks A trade mark is a sign used by a business to distinguish their goods or services from those of their competitors. Typically a trade mark may consist of a word or device (often described as a logo) although more unusual signs such as sounds or smells can also function as trade marks. Like patents it is possible to register your business' trade mark. Registration is not compulsory but doing so gives the owner the exclusive right to use the mark for the goods or services for which it has been registered in that country. Broader protection arises from registration in the case of trade marks which are well known or famous. Registration is a significant deterrent to other traders and provides concrete proof of a claim to legal rights. While marks which have been used and acquired a reputation also enjoy legal protection in a number of countries, it is generally easier to protect a registered trade mark against unauthorised use. Again, like patents, trade marks are country specific. However, there is a Europe-wide option in the form of a Community Trade Mark (CTM) confering Europe-wide protection and an "International registration" system. Designs Design Rights protect the appearance of a product and fall into two categories: un-registered and registered rights. An un-registered design right is an automatic right a company or designer has when a new design is created. It provides narrow protection against copying and lasts for a short period of time. A registered design right, like a patent, is a right which has been granted by government and provides far broader protection. It is possible to protect a 3-D visual appearance, such as the shape of a new mobile phone. It is also possible to protect 2-D aspects of visual appearance, such as surface decoration. A registered design may be concerned with the whole of a product, or just part of a product. For example, the shape of the whole of a mobile phone might be new, or it could be that just the shape of the antenna is new and thus commercially it is important to protect the shape of the antenna by itself. It is also possible to protect menus and icons used in computer software and user interfaces. Example Importantly Intellectual Property Rights can be used in combination to protect a product or a product range. As an example consider a newly-developed mobile phone having an innovative polymer battery which is moulded to be integral with the inside of the casing. The phone has a new brand name and a striking new visual appearance. Here, a patent could protect the battery, a trade mark could protect the brand and one or more registered designs could protect the appearance of the phone. The combination of rights presents significant barriers preventing other parties copying the phone. Further detailed information is available in the Knowledge Bank or by contacting a Partner at D Young & Co LLP. Both can be found at www.dyoung.com.