Own-it | Intellectual Property Know-How for Creative Businesses

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What are IP rights? Why do I need to know about them?

Published 01.12.08 at 10:30

IP rights enable creators to control and exploit their creative works. From art works to fashion designs from software to furniture, from technological inventions to music, IP rights guarantee that creators can make money from their creations and control the context in which their creations are used.

Without knowledge of your IP rights you are vulnerable: It is essential to know your IP rights in order to protect and benefit from your creativity! It is also essential to know IP so that you don't tread on the rights of others and end up on the wrong side of the law!

To use a cliché, you can think of IP as a kind of wedding cake, each layer protecting a greater level of mental content from the bottom up. The first layer of the cake protects trade marks, the logos and brands used in commerce, for example, the Coca-Cola brand name. The second layer of the cake protects copyright and design rights, the expressions of authors (for example, of artistic, literary, music and dramatic works) and designers of products (for example, fashion garments and industrial articles). The third layer of the cake protects patents: the ideas and processes that underpin inventions applied industrially, for example, tools and machines and bio-chemical technology. There are other IP rights and adjacent rights (such as confidential information), which protects trade secrets and know-how, which you should also be aware of.

It is important to understand three basic things about IP:

First, IP rights are independent of physical ownership; they protect the mental processes expressed in different artefacts, but not ideas or concepts. For example, if you make a painting and sell the painting you retain the right as author/copyright owner to copy the painting and stop others from copying it, even though you no longer physically own the painting.

Second, IP rights are like property rights – think of them like a house, you can let a part of it to other people, you can let the whole thing or you can transfer ownership or sell it, you can also allow people to use certain aspects of it for certain amounts of time with certain restrictions (no pets!) or use it yourself. However, IP rights only last for a limited period of time, for example, copyright in the UK lasts for the lifetime of the author plus 70years.

Third, there are multiple IP rights and these may often co-exist in relation to a single object. For example, a new vacuum may contain the following IP rights:

(i) a registered design right for the surface appearance of the vacuum,

(ii) an unregistered design right for the shape of the vacuum,

(iii) copyright in the drawings on which the vacuum is based,

(iv) a trade mark for the manufacturer's sign attached to the vacuum and possibly a trade mark in the shape of the vacuum itself,

(v) a patent protecting the method of vacuuming from the floor. If you had created all of the above, you would want to control all these IP rights.

Practical steps: Some IP rights can be registered, for example, patents, trade marks and registered designs. Other IP rights cannot be registered but arise automatically upon the creation of a work, for example copyright and unregistered design rights. You should always be aware of your IP rights and seek to protect them effectively through registration or otherwise. Often it is difficult for creators to retain control when they first set out in negotiations with big companies, but consider all the options in full before selling your rights or handing them over. To find out more, read our factsheets on copyright, patents and registered designs, and the explanations in our FAQs section. You should also read our article 'Doing the rights thing' for a step-by-step guide on protecting, exploiting and managing your IP.

Content supplied by Daniel McClean, solicitor at Withers LLP. Photo credit: Gierszewski


Please note that this article discusses the legal position in the UK at the time of publication. It provides general information only but is not to be regarded as legal advice. You must take advice from a specialist lawyer in relation to your specific circumstances. Further, you should seek additional legal advice when dealing with parties based in other parts of the world or works originating from other parts of the world as the legal position may vary.

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