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Doing business in the UK: intellectual property rights

(Part 5 of 7)

This is part 5 of 7 of our guide: 'Doing business in the UK'.

Intellectual property rights The UK has detailed rules dealing with the full range of intellectual property rights. The main types of intellectual property rights in the UK are summarised below:


Copyright is perhaps the most diverse intellectual property right, protecting works from books to computer software and from symphonies to broadcast transmissions. It protects original works against copying, sharing copies, selling copies, renting copies, lending copies, performing, showing in public and making adaptations of the work. Copyright in the UK arises automatically, there is no need to register to benefit from this right and it usually lasts 70 years from the death of the author.Through its membership of the Berne Convention (and other international arrangements of reciprocity) the UK Courts will enforce the vast majority of foreign copyrights, provided that they meet the criteria for protection in the jurisdiction in which they were created. A foreign national may approach the UK Courts and assert their copyright, which subsists as a result of their own foreign law, and seek to assert rights associated with their copyright in the UK.

Trade marks

Trade marks, logos, brands, trading names - call them what you will, but most businesses will have one or more of them. They are how we distinguish one person’s goods or services from another and depending on how well we do that, it can result in that trade mark being worth millions. Trade marks can protect words, names, images, sounds, slogans and logos. Trade marks can be registered, either as a UK trade mark or as an EU-wide trade mark. Once registered a trade mark can be renewed indefinitely (subject to renewal fees). We provide a fixed-fee service to apply to register your trade mark and deal with the process through to acceptance. Trade marks can also be unregistered under the law of passing off. Passing off is a ‘common law’ right, that arises automatically to protect the whole ‘get up’’ of an item. To claim passing off there must be: goodwill; misrepresentation leading to confusion; and damage (usually lost profits or reputation). The right to pursue another for passing off lasts indefinitely.


Patents protect new inventions and are normally something that can be made or used in industry. Compared to other intellectual property rights patents are expensive to obtain and take a long time to be granted but are still very valuable rights. The initial discussion is normally about whether your idea is patentable or not. If not, it may still be protected as a trade secret. However, if it is patentable the first thing to do is ensure the idea has not got out into the public domain. The reason being that if the idea is already known to the public it is not new and therefore cannot be patented. Patents must be registered and can last up to 20 years (subject to payment of renewal fees).

UK and European designs

It is possible to protect designs through registration in both the UK and in the EU. UK Registered Designs protect the overall visual appearance of a product or part of a product.Registration is required and can last 25 years (subject to payment of renewal fees). EU Registered Designs will protect the visible appearance of the whole orpart of a product resulting from features of, in particular: lines; contours; colours; shape; texture and materials; and ornamentation.

The design must be original and of individual character. The design cannot have been made available to the public. The right lasts 25 years (subject to payment of renewal fees).

Designs may also benefit from automatic (unregistered) protection in both the UK and the EU. In the UK, designers may benefit from automatic protection for the internal
or external shape of an original design. If applicable, this right arises automatically; there is no need to register. The right lasts the shorter of 15 years from the end of the year of creation/ recording or 10 years from the end of the year of first sale/hire. In the EU, unregistered design right protects a design in much the same way as an EU registered design, except that the protection only lasts for three years from the point the design is first disclosed or made available to the public with the EU.

Database rights

Database rights are not widely known but are incredibly valuable. Companies with customer lists, tables of historic information or marketing mailing lists have databases which can be protected not only by database rights but also with copyright. Where we advise that the database does not fall within the definition required to be protected by database rights we will consider if copyright protection is available (see our earlier section on Copyright). Databases are not just lists of names and addresses. They can include
spreadsheet data, technical specifications, research and databanks. You will want to keep some of your databases secret (e.g. your own customer lists). However, there are an increasing number of situations where you may wish to make some of your databases available to third parties through web sitesor in published directories either for free or under a ‘paid for’ subscription. Where a third party fails to abide by your restrictions for the use of your database and starts using it for its own commercial advantage, we can
advise you how to enforce your database rights.

Confidential information

It can be possible to protect information that is disclosed in circumstances in which an obligation of confidence arises. Such information is known as confidential information. To be protected, the information must satisfy the following conditions:

(1) It must be confidential in nature, for example it cannot apply to information already in the public domain;
(2) It must have been disclosed in circumstances in which an obligation of confidence arises. This can be implied or expressly stated in a contract;
(3) its unauthorised use would be to the detriment of the person disclosing it.

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Doing business in the UK

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This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2022.

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