Encouraging innovation through intellectual property rights
A Patent Office case study

Page 2: Intellectual property

The Patent Office 6 Image 2 Intellectual property rights refer to all types of protection such as patents, registered designs and design right, registered trade marks and copyright.

A patent is a monopoly right to the exclusive use of an invention. This could be a new product or process, for example, Hovis patented a new method of milling to preserve the wheat germ in its bread. In the UK a patent lasts for a maximum period of 20 years. To keep it in force during this period annual renewal fees have to be paid after the fourth year.

Registered designs and design right protect the appearance of an article, i.e. its shape and/or surface pattern. Examples are Plysu registering new designs for products such as milk bottles and oil cans or Sony registering a new mini-disc design. Registered designs exist for up to 25 years. Design right comes into operation automatically and the protection period is shorter.

Trade marks are the signs which distinguish the goods and services of one trader from another, e.g. Adidas and Nike. A registered trade mark ensures that only the company or its licensees may sell the product under that trade mark. Initially they last for 10 years but can be renewed indefinitely. Registered trade marks give stronger protection than unregistered marks. If a trade mark is unregistered the producer can still protect his product but he has to prove his case by meeting two strict requirements. These are:

  • that the trade mark has an established reputation
  • that the public could be confused or deceived by the use being complained of.

Copyright gives rights to the creators of original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work e.g. films, videos, computer programmes, and compact discs. There is no registration system in the United Kingdom; it comes into operation automatically. However owners must prove that the legal rights are theirs. Copyright enables creators to reap the rewards of their efforts; without it they may be unwilling to produce new material, e.g. musicians and their record companies.

The different types of intellectual property rights can be used together to offer a high degree of protection. For example the inventors of the board game Scrabble protected their product initially with patents and registered designs. They then further protected their business interests by registering the word 'Scrabble' as a trade mark.

The applications dealt with by the Patent Office provide a unique insight into the economic and social development of the United Kingdom. Trade mark applications reflect shifts in fashion and taste. The changing nature of the goods for which trade marks are registered provides a guide to patterns of trade. For instance, the numbers of applications for trade marks of tobacco products are falling, whereas those for pharmaceuticals and electrical goods are increasing.

Patent Office | Encouraging innovation through intellectual property rights

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