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Protecting your Intellectual Property


Intellectual property  (IP) is a work or invention that is the result of creativity. This can take many forms and it is likely that during your studies you have already generated intellectual property in some form!

Intellectual property can vary from an original piece of writing, through to the development of a new drug, or the design of a new product or component. Depending on the type of IP you have developed, there will be different ways in which you can protect it, and some forms are much easier to protect than others.

IP protection falls into five main categories:

  1. Copyright
  2. Design Rights
  3. Patents
  4. Trademarks
  5. Trade Secrets


Copyright is an automatic right that you gain when you create work – typically written work, music or artwork. It applies the expression of an idea, rather than the idea itself. A famous case of copyright debate came from JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, who successfully stopped the publication of an unofficial Harry Potter encyclopaedia claiming the book 'The proposed book took an enormous amount of my work and added virtually no original commentary of its own'. Rowling has taken no action against other books based on the Harry Potter series stating that they offer original insight into the series – demonstrating somewhat how copyright works. Other than some notable exceptions copyright will last 50 years from the death of the creator.

Design Rights

Like copyright, design rights are automatic – however you can seek additional protection by registering your design. Design rights only last 10-15 years and cover the 'shape and configuration' of objects. You will need to prove when you created your design – a clever way of doing this is to post the design to yourself using recorded delivery and keep the envelope unopened!


Patents are often what we hear about in the news when we think about IP, and are one of the most secure ways of protecting your ideas. You can seek a patent for something when you can demonstrate a 'novel, inventive step' in the development of something that can be made or used. By obtaining a patent on your idea you can stop other from making it, importing it, or selling it – however it is wise to establish the commercial value of your product before seeking a patent as the process can be expensive to start and maintain. Patents in the UK usually last 20 years – a good example of patent expiry is when expensive drug patents expire, opening up the potential for other companies to make 'generic' versions of the drug and sell them at a much cheaper rate.


Trademarks are a type of intellectual property that are concerned with brands and the recognition and names of those brands. If you have a product or service that goes by a particular brand you can stop others from using it. Trademarks can apply to names and the designs that accompany them, for example Adidas have successfully protected the use of the 'three stripes' associated with their brand. Cadbury Chocolate however lost in a legal battle with Nestle over use of what they have called their 'Trademark Purple'.

Trade Secrets

Where protection  of your IP is not possible, or not desirable due to the length of protection conferred then you have the option to just keep your IP a secret. Coca Cola are the most notable company that do this- keeping the recipe for their brand of cola secret for many years. Should a patent have been possible for them it would have long expired, and meant that the recipe, published by the patent, would have been up for grabs. Trade secrets do not stop anyone from reverse engineering your product so you need to be sure that it is not easy to figure out if you choose this route!

If you have ideas that you want to protect or need advice on Intellectual property then please get in touch with the Centre for Entrepreneurship, and have a look at the Government Intellectual Property office website where you can get lots more information. 

Blog post by Rae DePaul, Knowledge Transfer Officer at Cardiff Met
February 2016