So, what is intellectual property?

Unlike material goods, intellectual property (IP) cannot be touched – it covers things like images, writing, branding, films, software and inventions. Basically, if it’s something you’ve created, it *should* be your intellectual property.

You’re probably familiar with the terms ‘trade mark’, ‘copyright’ and ‘patent’ but may not know what the difference is. At what point do you get to use those little symbols (©,®, TM) you see everywhere? What do you do if someone steals your IP? Don’t know? Don’t worry! Thankfully, Emma Richards from the Intellectual Property Office popped by Propeller Networking last week to fill us in on all the details.

Copyright – for creative content

Copyright is automatic: once you create something it is yours. However, it’s not official. Although people shouldn’t steal your content, they still might, and you can’t use the copyright mark © without registering. If somebody plagiarises you (uses your content without permission) you must be able to prove that it was yours in the first place. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to register your content.

Even once registered, copyright doesn’t protect the idea of the work, only the way you express the idea. Copyright gives you the exclusive rights to allow people to use your work. So if you are working with other companies, it’s important to have the right documentation. Make sure you have a contract saying that you retain the copyright for your content and if giving content to someone else, state how they can use it, where, and for how long.

Copyright will remain yours until 70 years after your death, after which it becomes public domain, and anyone can use it. For films, copyright runs out 70 years after the death of the last creative team (although the production company may have rights).

Trade marks – protecting brands

Trade marks protect brands, including its logo, name, wording, shape, domain name, colour, sound or aspects of packaging. Obviously, there are limits, but if the brand ‘Cora Coka’ was in the same font and colours as ‘Coca Cola’, then there’d certainly be questions. You can use the TM trademark symbol straight away without registering, but you can only use the ® symbol for registered trademarks. It’s completely free to check the trademark registry! Once you’ve checked the validity of your own trademark it costs £170 for national registration (10 years), and £850 for European registration.

Patents – protecting inventions

Patents protect inventions and allows you to decide who makes, uses, sells or imports your invention. Your invention won’t be kept a secret – you’ll still have to share how you created your invention – but people won’t be able to use it until your patent expires.  A UK patent gives you protection for 20 years as long as renewal fees are paid annually. The IPO does not judge whether your product or method will be a success. A patent protects innovations such as machines, industrial processes, production methods, electrical appliances, biological products and processes, and computer hardware.


You don’t have to register your designs, but they are much harder to protect without proper registration. Registering product design can be important. If you’ve ever been to a bargain supermarket you will have seen imitation brands. They look almost identical to established products, which is a clever ploy to make you trust a brand. Generally, in the UK, there aren’t many safety risks as everything is regulated, but this type of design imitation can still infer a quality that the product simply does not have. Due to the halo effect, the quality of an imitation product can affect your own product’s reputation, so it deserves some caution. In order to be registered, designs cannot simply be shaped in such a way so as to serve a technical function.

Valuing your Intellectual Property

Intellectual property should be a part of your business plan. Quality products or services give you a competitive edge when marketing and if they are unique, your entire reputation may rest on keeping them so.

Identify which products or services are essential for your business. Consider the market advantage they give you and whether your business will still be valuable if someone has an almost identical offering. A good way of assigning value to these products or services is to estimate how much it would cost to create these from scratch or how much a competitor would be willing to pay for them.

Licensing Intellectual Property

Since you own your own intellectual property, it’s up to you how people use it. For businesses that buy usage of your intellectual property it makes a lot of sense: they can reduce the cost of R&D, save time in development, gain competitive advantage and access expertise they may not possess.

Revenue Generation – You can use the product yourself to make money, but you can also license it to someone else at the same time. This way, you profit from their efforts too.

Licensing – Generic licensing means that you give the right to manufacture and sell products to someone else. You receive profit without the risk of manufacturing, promoting or selling them yourself. The licensee gets to use the product without paying to develop it themselves.

Increasing market penetration – You can give other businesses permission to use your IP in other territories, expanding your reach.

Franchising – Companies like Macdonald’s are franchises. They are owned by one company (Macdonald’s), but each individual restaurant is owned by someone different. They license the right to be Macdonald’s, provide their products and services, for a portion of the profits. The franchisee typically pays royalties to the umbrella company in return for a trade mark license.


So, that’s IP in a nutshell. Hopefully you’ve got a better idea of whether you need to register your own intellectual property and a basic guide of what kind of cover you need. There’s plenty more information on the IPO’s website, but our mentors can also help you get everything sorted.