Legal Guides

We use plain and simple English to give you an overview of the most common areas of law.

Understanding Intellectual Property Law

Let’s say you’ve come up with a brilliant (and original) idea. This amazing idea of yours could make you lots of money, so naturally, you don’t want anybody copying or stealing your idea. That’s where Intellectual Property Law can be your best friend.

Intellectual Property Law covers four main areas:

A single item can be covered by all four. For instance, a new kind of musical instrument could be covered by a Patent for the way it works, by a Design for its appearance, protected by Trade Mark for its logo and by Copyright for its usage instructions.

An ‘idea’ can be almost anything original; a brand, an invention, a design, a song or some other intellectual creation. These days, commercial success is very much driven by intellectual ideas, as a result, Intellectual Property (or IP for short) is becoming increasingly important.

Intellectual Property Law not only protects innovation, creativity and enterprise, it also means an idea or creation is actually owned by someone (normally the creator or creators) and as such, can be bought and sold.

What is Intellectual Property?

The expression ‘Intellectual Property’ is a general one. It’s used as shorthand for the many varied and often complex rights relating to work created by an individual or group of individuals, and gives the work or idea ‘legal protection’.

Legal protection simply means that:

  • The Intellectual Property right can be owned (it can even be owned by different persons in different countries);
  • The owner can prevent others infringing the right without permission;
  • These rights can be the subject of agreements allowing use by someone who isn’t the owner, or transferred to such a person.

Why use IP?

Innovative products and services as well as strong and distinctive branding are fundamental to business success and (in some cases) personal success. Coming up with a great idea or invention alone is not enough though. Maximising and exploiting the idea is vital, this includes protecting and enforcing Intellectual Property whether locally, nationally or around the world.

What are Intellectual Property Rights?

The term Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) describes those rights that are mainly created by written law (statute) and often only give protection if you register them. The big exception is Copyright, which comes into existence automatically.

Intellectual Property rights include:

  • Trade Marks
  • Copyrights (and many similar rights now recognised as protectable such as databases)
  • Patents
  • Designs
  • Author’s rights
  • Rights in performances
  • Recording rights
  • Know-how
  • Confidentiality
  • Domain names
  • Image

What is an Image Right?

In December 2012, Guernsey brought into force its new Image Rights. For the first time anywhere in the world, this new law allows Image Rights to be registered. It’s created a new form of Intellectual Property right for anyone anywhere, who is famous, or who might be famous in the future, to protect their image by registering it.

The new law can cover individuals like Bradley Wiggins, or joint-individuals like Ant & Dec, even groups such as One Direction, or fictional characters like Spiderman.

It not only protects a name, but it allows registration of a signature, silhouette, particular features, mannerisms, photographs or illustrations as well.

So what’s the benefit to protecting your image? Registration will give you ‘Image Rights’ and allow you to control the commercial use in addition to stopping other people from infringing upon them. Such a right makes it easier for you to deal with the use of your ‘Image Rights’ in connection with sponsorship, marketing, endorsing of products or services. While it’s primary aim is protection and enforcement, it’s also extremely helpful when it comes to tax planning.

Social Media & Social Networking

It’s not just the younger generation glued to social media and online social networks. With businesses hungry to take a slice of the action, it is inevitable that IP issues and IPR problems in relation to IP infringement (not to mention libel and defamation) are growing.

Most companies now have a social media policy or a social media guidance policy, both of which should dovetail with your employment contract or company employee handbook. It’s well worth taking a careful look at these documents to understand what is (and is not) expected of you in relation to your conduct and behaviour and what rights you have. As always, your own common sense also comes in handy.

Intellectual Property – who owns what?

With regard to Intellectual Property the rule of thumb is that if you develop something whilst you are employed, that is, as an employee, the IP and IPR belongs to the company you’re working for – your employer. However, this can be a very grey area and is often the subject of litigation particularly with reference to Contract Law, Employment Law and IP Law.

Let’s say you develop something (your brilliant idea) outside of your contracted working hours. It certainly wasn’t within your role or remit, and you didn’t use any of your company’s materials or hardware, databases, software, existing IP etc. in its creation or development. In these circumstances, it may well be found that you could own the IP.

What to do next

You will find the UK Intellectual Property Office particularly useful to learn more about IP and how to go about registering and protecting it.

Once you’ve checked out a few things for yourself you may decide you would benefit from popping into see somebody who is legally qualified to listen to your unique circumstance, at least for an initial chat, and then to determine how best to progress with things.

As ever, we recommend you consult an Intellectual Property lawyer or Commercial lawyer if you’re in any doubt as to your rights and ownership of any Intellectual Property you’ve created.

DISCLAIMER: This article should not be regarded as constituting legal advice in relation to particular circumstances. This article is merely a general comment on the relevant topic. 

Published on 23rd January 2013
(Last updated 14th July 2023)