Intellectual property rights: A complete guide for UK Businesses in 2022

Without solid intellectual property ownership contracts, businesses run the risk of losing their most innovative assets.

An image of a typewriter producing a manual intellectual property contract template

The intellectual property of a business is one of its most important assets. With intellectual property ownership securely fastened in place, a company has the ability to stand apart from the crowd as a truly unique entity, and to commercialise what makes it different. And yet, without intellectual property ownership, businesses run the risk of losing their most innovative assets.

When it comes to intellectual property ownership, there are a lot of avenues available to a business. Get it right, and you can see your ideas go far. Get it wrong, and you may end up paying a lot of money for little or no protection.

We’ve put together the ultimate guide on intellectual property rights in the UK, equipping SMEs with the knowledge and resources needed to bring their ideas to life - safely.

So, what is intellectual property?

What is IP?

Intellectual property is an “intangible property” that results from a person's creation. In simple terms, protecting your intellectual property allows you to prevent others from stealing or copying your creations, and creates a tangible (and protectable) asset from something intangible.

There are four main types of intellectual property you’ll want to be aware of. These are:

Patents: Patent rights cover an invention, for example, a new product, machine part or design process. These are generally technical in nature and protect the functionality of the product or process.

Copyright: This covers creative works, for example, literary works, art, photography, music, or web content.

Trademark: A trademark can cover product names, logos and even unconventional “marks” such as colours, sounds and 3D marks. The purpose of a trademark is to protect the external identity and “get-up” of a business.

Design rights: Design rights seek to protect the appearance of a product or one of its parts, for example, its shape, packaging, pattern or decoration.

How to protect IP

We’ve outlined the different purposes of copyright, trademarks, patents and design rights but how do you go about securing intellectual property ownership over these types of assets?

In the UK, it’s actually not possible to register copyright, as copyright protection automatically arises on the creation of an original work. Handy! It is, however, possible to register copyright in a number of countries overseas.

If you want to register a trademark or a patent in the UK then you will need to file a trademark or patent application at the UKIPO. Once the application is filed, it goes through the UKIPO’s examination and publication process. If no objections are raised or oppositions filed, the application is then registered. Job done.

Similar to copyright, unregistered design rights arise automatically. Alternatively, and similar to a patent or trademark, registered design rights can be obtained by filing an application at the UKIPO.


First things first, it’s not actually possible to register copyright in the UK. So how can you protect your intellectual property rights? Copyright protection automatically arises from the creation of one of the following types of original work:

  • Literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works (including books, scripts, illustrations and photography).

  • Alternative written works (for example software, web content and databases).

  • Sound and music recordings.

  • Film and television recordings.

Broadcasts and the layout or published editions of written, dramatic and musical works.

So, what can copyright help you achieve? Assets protected by copyright can provide you with the right to prevent other people from:

  • copying your work;

  • distributing, renting or lending copies of it;

  • performing it;

  • showing or playing your work in public;

  • or making an adaptation of your work or putting it on the internet.

Copyright lasts anywhere from 25 to 70+ years, depending on the type of work. It’s important here to note, however, that ideas cannot be protected by copyright , but physical material relating to or resulting from these ideas can be, for example, plans and drawings. Generally, copyright protection exists for the expression of ideas, as opposed to the ideas themselves.

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Next up, trademarks. The definition of a trademark lies in its name: a trademark marks your “trade”, distinguishing your goods and services from others.

There are many different types of trademark that can be registered, including:

  • a word (or words);

  • a logo;

  • the shape of goods or their packaging;

  • a colour; and

  • sounds or motions.

This is, of course, as long as they are distinct, and can be represented clearly and precisely so that anyone viewing the trademark register could immediately understand what the trademark protects. Duration wise, a UK registered trademark must be renewed every 10 years.

A trademark is protected in relation to a select list of goods and/or services and the rights you own are limited by that list; you do not automatically own rights in any field whatsoever. Getting this right is therefore very important.

In addition to a registered trademark, it is also possible to have an unregistered trademark, properly known as “goodwill”. Goodwill is recognised in the UK and exists as a result of significant trade under the trademark in question. Gaining this type of intellectual property ownership however requires evidence of significant use of the trademark, often over a number of years. As a result, it’s usually in your best interests to seek out registered trademark protection.

It’s important to note here that a trademark is a territorial right, which means that protection is required separately in every territory where you wish to have registered trademark protection of your mark . There are a couple of options for obtaining protection across more than one country, such as the European Union TradeMark System (which protects your mark in all 27 member states) but generally, you have to file to protect the mark in each individual country where you wish to have registered trademark protection of your mark.

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What are patents, and what do they protect? In simple terms, patents offer protection for inventions and innovative ideas, such as a technical process or an inventive method of doing something. They protect the functionality of a product or process as opposed to just its appearance.

To patent ideas, you need to file a patent application at the UKIPO. This application needs to include detailed documents describing the invention, including statements and often drawings that set out the technical aspects of it (referred to as “claims”). To stay protected, you must renew a UK registered patent on the 4th anniversary of when you filed for it. You then need to renew every year after that. You can renew your patent for up to a maximum of 20 years in total.

There are some exceptions to patent protection, which include:

  • a way of doing business;

  • software with a non-technical purpose;

  • a discovery;

  • a scientific theory or mathematical method;

  • or the way information is presented.

When it comes to registering patent rights, it’s important that your idea is new, it’s inventive, and it’s not already in the public domain. As a result, it’s often recommended to conduct a worldwide patent search, to determine if anyone else has come up with your idea already or if there are inventions which are already known, which may alter the way that you choose to describe your invention, to make sure you obtain protection.

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Design Rights

There are two types of design rights recognised in the UK; an unregistered design right and a registered design right. Both rights achieve intellectual property ownership and help the owner to prevent others from copying or using their design without permission.

Unregistered design rights arise automatically, and can protect the shape and configuration of a 3D object or the appearance of a product (2D or 3D). The duration of this protection depends on the type of design. Just like patents and trademarks, registered design rights can be obtained by filing an application at the UKIPO, and can protect:

  • the physical shape of a product;

  • its configuration; and/or

  • the decoration, colour or pattern applied to those products.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to protect the functionality of the product protected by a design, or in other words, the way in which it works; these rights are purely aesthetic.

In fact, designs which are considered purely functional, i.e. because their design is dictated purely by a need to fit alongside another product, will be refused protection.

For protection in functionality, patents should be considered.

A registered design makes it easier to prove intellectual property ownership, and registration lasts five years. This registration can be renewed every five years, to a grand total of twenty-five years.

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Trade secrets

Next up, trade secrets. Trade secrets cover a broad spectrum of things, including:

  • formulas;

  • practices;

  • processes;

  • designs;

  • instruments;

and patterns and compilations of information with an inherent economic value.

In all of these cases, the person in control will have taken reasonable steps to maintain secrecy. While you can’t register a trade secret in the UK, they are protected through a number of different avenues. These include:

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What is intellectual property theft?

Everything we’ve discussed here is with the aim of avoiding intellectual property theft, misrepresentation or copying. Unfortunately, however, the intellectual property world is plagued by copycats.

IP theft is when intellectual property, or data relating to intellectual property rights is stolen. The most common type is the theft of trade secrets and the use of this information to create a competing product or service. However, intellectual property theft happens on a broad scale, which is why it’s crucial to keep on top of the intellectual property you own, and the IP you should be protecting.

Managing your intellectual property

The management of your IP is pretty important in business, particularly when the stakes are so high. But how should you go about managing your innovative ideas?

The first step is often to establish practices within the business to ensure IP is captured at the right moment, assessed and protected, where suitable.

For businesses yet to establish these processes or fully get a grasp of their IP, an IP audit is a great place to start and involves a detailed review of the IP assets owned by your company. Auditing your IP portfolio is important for a number of reasons:

  • You want to ensure you have adequate protections in place;

  • You want to ensure ownership of assets sits with the right businesses or individuals;

  • You want to make sure the value of your IP marries up with your protection and maintenance costs;

  • You want to ensure registers are up to date (for things like owner information);

  • And finally, you want to ensure processes are in place for the business to capture, record, and protect its IP.

Intellectual property licensing can be another useful tool for a business, particularly when it comes to business expansion. Licensing your intellectual property means that you can grow your company’s offering, whilst using third parties already established in other areas. This allows you to benefit from existing production and distribution chains while maximising the value of your intellectual property.

Finally, enforcement is particularly key to protecting your IP. Without appropriate enforcement, it can be quite easy to lose control over your intellectual property ownership. For example, as a result of unauthorised use by third parties, your trademark could become diluted, resulting in your registration being cancelled and removed from the register. So you should ensure you have processes in place to detect unauthorised use of your intellectual property rights and then take prompt appropriate action against the relevant third party/parties if and when any unauthorised use is discovered.

Intellectual Property Rights, the easier way

Great ideas are the making of a business, but failure to protect those ideas can be a recipe for disaster. And yet, it’s remarkably tricky for companies to assess, audit, protect, and enforce their intellectual property rights. Whether it’s the financial cost, or mountains of information, maintaining intellectual property ownership is not the simple process that it should be.

That’s why at Docue we’ve worked hard to provide accessible, affordable, and essential contract and legal document templates that empower tens of thousands of businesses to truly manage and protect their intellectual property rights. So feel free to sign up to the Docue platform today in order to allow your business to create, customise, sign, store, and manage your contracts and legal documents all in one place and robustly protect your intellectual property rights by using our lawyer-made templates and clauses. You never know, in just a few clicks, using our watertight intellectual property clauses and contracts might just be the key to preventing your closest competitor from stealing your latest ground-breaking idea!

Your ideas are worth protecting: let us help you get there!

Docue Legal Team