Intellectual property law is the law that governs rights in creative works and inventions. The most common such rights are patents, copyright and trademarks.
Copyright is a right which gives the creator of an original work exclusive rights to it. This right extends to most literary, dramatic and art forms. Copyright is not indefinite, but rather last for a limited period. This period will vary depending on the type of work, and ranges from 25 years from the date of publication to 70 years from the date of death of the author. Copyright exists automatically, and does not require any form of registration for the creator to have copyright protection.
A patent represents a series of rights granted by a national government, which effectively grants the patent holder protection and exclusive exploitation rights in connection with an invention. Not everything can be patented; patents will only be granted for something which is an invention, and which are novel, inventive and useful or industrially applicable.
Where a difficulty arises in UK law is in deciding whether something is an “invention”. For any invention involving a tangible, physical object, this is rarely an issue, but the law is reluctant to apply to the status of “invention” to intangible processes or systems. This is usually extended to computer software, which is notoriously difficult to patent (although it will be subject to copyright).
Patents can be obtained in the UK and other countries. There are also international patent-granting authorities, such as the European Patent Office and the International Patent Office. Many countries around the world accept the validity of internationally granted patents. Patent registration is a highly specialised area and is generally handled by expert patent attorneys.
A trademark is a distinctive indicator used by a business to identify itself. This may simply be a word or phrase, but it may also be a logo, sign or image. Trademarks can be registered for extra protection, but even if a trademark is unregistered the owner still has significant protection against its use by a third party, if the trademark owner can demonstrate established use and the perception in the eyes of the public of the association of that trademark with the trademark owner.
There are also rights in UK and European law to protect rights in designs. This can be useful for a business producing goods which are of a specialist or distinctive appearance.
All of the above is collectively referred to as intellectual property rights. Such rights can generally be sold or transferred permanently or, if the original owner wishes, to remain the owner, but is willing to allow others to use the rights, they can be licensed permanently or for a finite period, with the licensee acquiring exclusive or non-exclusive rights, as agreed between the parties.
Intellectual property rights can often be significant in corporate mergers and acquisitions; it is common for the main imperative behind the acquisition of a company to be the securing of the intellectual property rights owned by the company. It is therefore important for any business which is reliant on intellectual property to take the necessary steps to protect and secure that intellectual property, in order to preserve the value of the business.
When looking for an intellectual property solicitor it’s advisable to seek out a law firm that has extensive experience and expertise in dealing with intellectual property matters, including in the licensing and transfer of rights and handling disputes around alleged infringement of rights. A good intellectual property solicitor will take a realistic and commercial approach to your needs and ensure that they understand your business and the way it operates, in order to understand the value of the intellectual property right to you and best methods for protecting it.