Brief guide to patents, trademarks and copyright

  • Speaker Head (installation view) by Gregor Timlin (Design Products, 2008)

When a good idea moves out of your head and into the public eye, there is the chance that someone else out there might decide it is their idea. But it is your ‘Intellectual Property’ (IP) and there are many ways you can protect it. Different types of work require specific and sometimes very detailed knowledge, but as a start, here are some principles about the four key IP rights.

Patents - Key Facts

1. Patents are legal rights to inventions

Patents are limited in time - generally 20 years from filing of the patent application

2. Inventions can be defined as technical solutions to problems

Inventions are generally of two types:

• PRODUCT - compounds or compositions OR devices or apparatus
• PROCESS - method of making/ using/ doing (something)

3. To be patentable inventions must be:

• New
• Non-obvious
• Industrially applicable

4. A patent application is a technically, and legally detailed document having 2 parts:

• CLAIMS - define the legal scope of monopoly
• DESCRIPTION - describes the invention in great depth

5. In most countries a patent application is published 18 months after filing, thereby making its information content publicly available.

Trade Marks - Key Facts

1. A trade (service) mark is:

• any sign capable of being represented graphically
• any device capable of distinguishing the goods (services) of one undertaking from those of other undertakings

2. The sign can consist of:

• Word(s) – eg. Chanel
• Graphical device(s) – eg. Nike swoosh
• Colour(s) – eg. purple for Cadbury’s chocolate
• Shape(s) – eg. the coke bottle
• Smell(s) 
• Sound(s) – eg. Direct line jingle
• Slogan(s) – eg. ‘Have a break, have a kitkat’

But must as a whole be 'capable of distinguishing'.

3. A trade mark has two basic functions

• Indication of origin
• Indication of quality

4. Lifetime of trade mark, in use, is potentially unlimited.

5. Registration is by class of goods or services.

Copyright - Key Facts

Copyright is the right to prevent copying of original literacy, artistic and musical works.

Copyright arises automatically whenever such a work is created, and does not require any registration. 'Original' means that the work is the creation of its author, not being copied from any other work.

Copyright protection normally lasts for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years, although there are some exceptions.

Computer software is protected by Copyright law by being treated as a literary work. Technical materials such as instruction manuals and engineering drawings are also protected as literary or artistic works. It should be noted that these forms of protection are only against direct copying and do not prevent a competitor achieving the same technical effect by independent work.

NB: to prove someone has directly copied your software programme, include some false programming lines. The BT phone books include at least one false telephone number on each page to easily identify copyright infringement.

It is a good idea for you to mark your copyright work with the copyright symbol © followed by your name and the date, to warn others against copying it, and to inform them who they should contact for permission, but it is not legally necessary in the UK.

To prove date of authorship send a copy of your work to yourself by special delivery (which gives a clear date stamp on the envelope), leaving the envelope unopened on its return; this could establish that the work existed at this time.