What is intellectual property?

Wondering whether you have intellectual property (IP) that requires legal protection? Or perhaps you’re simply searching for a straightforward answer to ‘what is intellectual property’.

Fortunately, the expert team of trade mark professionals at Trademark Eagle possesses years of experience helping clients understand intellectual property as well as their intellectual property rights in the UK.

In this ultimate guide to intellectual property, we discover the importance, meaning, and types of intellectual property, while also explaining intellectual property rights and how this property can be protected.

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property refers to the creation of something intangible that can be is protected by law. As the name suggests, this property is typically the result of creativity and human intellect, and includes products, creations like songs, stories, and designs.

While there are many different types of intellectual property, some of the most common types of intellectual property examples are patents, copyrights, and trade marks.

Can intellectual property be legally protected?

Yes, intellectual property can be legally protected under either a design, patent, copyright, trade mark, or trade secret.

The type and degree of legal protection provided to your intellectual property will vary depending on which of these five categories the property is assigned to.

Some intellectual property protections are automatic, while others must be applied for or renewed every so often to ensure their validity.

What are intellectual property rights?

To help individuals protect their intellectual property in the eyes of the law, defined intellectual property rights were created. These rights give the inventor or creator the exclusive legal rights to this property, often for a set period of time, allowing them to use this invention or creation as they see fit.

How is intellectual property protected in the UK?

There are five key types of protections that can be given to intellectual property and each one has its own set of laws in the UK.

They include designs, patents, copyrights, trade marks, and trade secrets.

While ideas can be a type of intangible personal property, they don’t fit into any one of these intellectual property categories. As an example you cannot protect a concept, but you can protect the rights around this such as the name used for the products or services, the product design (in some instances), or a patent which deals with the industrial application of the product.

What is intellectual property

What are the different types of intellectual property rights in the UK?

Registered designs

In the UK, if you design something, you may be able to protect it by registering the design. For example, an individual designing the appearance of a product may want to protect the physical shape, configuration, decoration, colour or pattern of the design.

By registering the design, it’s typically much easier to prove both when you created the design and that you are the owner of this intellectual property. If another individual or company attempts to copy this design without your consent, this registration can be relied upon to deter or completely stop them from using it.

This type of intellectual property protection gives the owner exclusive rights to use the registered design as they want. From the day of registration, the renewal is valid for five years.


A patent refers to the granting of exclusive government-issued rights upon an inventor that has created either a new product or process. This product or process tends to provide either a new solution to a technical issue or offers new way of achieving something technological in nature.

This patent ensures the inventor can take legal action against anyone that decides to manufacture, sell, or import the patent-protected invention without the permission of the individual with the patent. A theory cannot be patented, but technological inventions (that is devices, methods, and products) can be.

Inventions such as the light bulb and the telephone, for example, are patented.


A copyright covers literary and artistic works, giving the owner the legal right to control how their work is copied, distributed, adapted, performed, and displayed – often for a defined periods.

The look of a website, paintings, photographs, books, poems, plays, films, and songs can all be subject to copyright.

Ultimately, a copyright protects your work by allowing you the ability to prevent others from using it without your permission. In the UK, a copyright can provide protection for an artistic piece of work for up to 70 years after the author’s death. Once the copyright is no longer valid, the work can be used by anyone.


A trade mark is categorised as a type of sign, design, or expression that helps customers to identify and attribute products and services in the marketplace to a particular business or organisation.

Names, logos, taglines, colour schemes, shapes and sounds can all be used to distinguish your business from another, meaning they can all be trademarked.

With a trade mark, you can protect your brand and ensure competitors can’t use similar signs and benefit from the reputation and hard work of your business.

Once you’ve registered a trade mark, you will be able to take legal action against anyone that uses your branding (such as your logo or tagline) without seeking your permission first.

Trade secrets

A trade secret refers to confidential, commercially-sensitive information that often gives a business a competitive advantage and isn’t generally known or available to others outside of the organisation.

The owner of the trade secret must take reasonable measures to keep this information confidential, often by limiting the number of people that are aware of the trade secret.

This trade secret can be sold or licenced, but they are generally retained as they provide the business with inherent value. Trade secrets can be in the form of plans, programs, formulas, and recipes. KFC is a famous example of the value of trade secrets with their secret blend of 11 herbs and spices used to coat their chicken.

The fast-food chain is renowned for keeping this spice blend recipe a secret, helping it to grow into an incredibly successful business and achieve the title of the world’s second-largest restaurant chain. Unlike a patent and trade mark that must be renewed after a set period of time, a trade secret can be protected indefinitely and doesn’t require renewal.

However, if the trade secret is revealed, leaked, or even legally acquired and released into the public domain, it’s no longer protected as a trade secret. In terms of the amount of legal protection trade secrets possess, they are actually only protected by common law and contracts like Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs).

How long do intellectual property rights last in the UK?

The length of your intellectual property rights in the UK vary depending on the type of protection you have and whether you decide to renew it. For example, a patent in the UK last for five years, but it can be renewed every year for a maximum of 20 years.

Similarly, a registered design will only last for five years, but it an be renewed every five years up to a maximum of 25 years (if desired).

Copyright protection, on the other hand, is valid for 70 years after the creator has passed away. In the event that the intellectual property was co-created, the patent will last for 70 years after the death of the last surviving creator. After this period, the copyrighted work becomes public domain.

Trade marks also last for 10 years, but can be renewed either online or via post. As the long as the trade mark is consistently renewed, it can remain in place indefinitely. However, it is important that the trademark is being used in order to be able to rely upon it when it has been registered for 5 years. It is also necessary for the trademark to be for the correct style (logo, words, colours) and to ensure it covers your current commercial offering. Similarly, trade secrets also have an indefinite lifespan, unless they are leaked to an unauthorised party as this would render them no longer a ‘secret’.

Why are intellectual property rights important?

Being able to legally protect your creation or invention with intellectual property rights is essential to the success of many businesses. The appropriate intellectual property protection can make all the difference when it comes to the long-term viability of a company as they can be used to safeguard a variety of business assets.

If you’ve spent decades and thousands (or even millions!) of pounds building a strong brand, excellent customer reputation, and a product or service that makes your business stand out from the crowd, the last thing you want is for a competitor to steal this success by copying, selling, or otherwise using your intellectual property.

Intellectual property rights can help you to prevent anyone from using your logo and tagline as well as any products, services, or processes that differentiate your business from other competing companies. With information being so freely available on the internet since the 21st century, the likelihood of your intellectual property being stolen is unfortunately much higher.

Regardless of the size of your business or where you’re located, your intellectual property is at risk without intellectual property rights. These rights allow you to take back control by taking legal action against anyone that might infringe upon your patent, copyright, or trade mark protection.

What happens if you break intellectual property law in the UK?

If you break intellectual property law relating to patents, trade marks, designs, or copyright, then the individual with the intellectual property rights has the right to raise a civil claim against you.

Trade marks and copyright infringements also give the owner of the intellectual property the right to take you to court and demand payment for damages.

You could also be hit with a substantial fine, an order to cease trading, even a custodial sentence, depending on the severity of the infringement. Unlimited fines and up to a maximum of 10 years in prison are some of the most serious sanctions for using someone else’s intellectual property without their permission in the UK.

If someone is using your intellectual property without your consent, you may be able to avoid costly and time-consuming legal action by contacting them and attempting to reach some kind of mutual, co-existence agreement. It is often worth contacting your trademark attorneys to begin the process of stopping the unauthorised use by means of negotiation. If negotiation fails, they can guide you in relation to which legal action you can take.

How do I know if I have intellectual property?

Unsure whether you have intellectual property? According to government guidelines, you own intellectual property if you created something that either meets the copyright or patent requirements, can be deemed a design, or you have purchased the intellectual property rights from the original creator or inventor.

Alternatively, you may also be the owner of intellectual property if you have built a brand that can be trademarked. Some of the most recognisable brands include behemoth companies like McDonalds, Apple, Google, and Amazon, but organisations of any size can and do apply for a trade mark.

If you’re not sure whether your business can or should apply for a trade mark, why not get in touch with the intellectual property experts here at Trademark Eagle?

Our talented legal team has years of invaluable experience helping our clients protect their businesses using official and up to date information supplied by the UK’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO) and the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO).

Protect your intellectual property with Trademark Eagle

Concerned that a creation of yours might be stolen or copied by a competitor?

Here at Trademark Eagle, our expert trade mark attorneys have helped a wide range of businesses protect their intellectual property around the world by offering them professional trade mark protection.

Having supported our clients with in excess of 5,000 UK trade mark applications and around thousands of  EU marks, we can help businesses of all shapes and sizes to find, register, and protect their trade mark.

Combining sophisticated search software with unapparelled customer support, we make understanding trade mark law as straightforward as possible.

If you’d like to find out more about our services, don’t hesitate to contact us today. You can either call us on 0122 3208 624, send us your enquiry to enquiries@trademark-eagle.com, or fill out our convenient online contact form.

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