Tuesday 7 August 2018

Understanding Intellectual Property

Copyright: but what does it mean?
(image: Vlad Podvorny, public domain mark 1.0)

What is intellectual property, and how does it differ from, say, copyright? Here are the basics, in plain English.

What is IPR?

'Intellectual property rights', or IPR, is an umbrella term for a range of protection for both tangible and intangible ‘creations’. Some rights are automatic but some you have to register for. Broadly, there are four types of IPR:

  • Patents: which protect inventions from being copied. The invention must be demonstrably new, and the government’s Intellectual Property Office (formerly the Patent Office) has responsibility for governing this. Applying for patent protection takes about five years, and lasts for 20 years in the UK. 
  • Trademarks: which protect a ‘sign’ from being used by others. The sign can be a logo, words, colour scheme or slogan. Registering it with the Intellectual Property Office takes about four months, and protection lasts for 10 years.
  • Designs: which protect ‘the shape and configuration’ of objects. There are two types of protection. You get an automatic ‘design right’ for 15 years after you first created it, or 10 years after it was first sold. Alternatively, you can register it (again with the Intellectual Property Office) and renew the register every five years, which will protect your design for up to 25 years.
  • Copyright: which protects a creative work from being used without permission. This is the form of IPR that researchers will most regularly come into contact with, whether as authors, artists or consumers. Copyright, like design, is automatic and doesn’t have to be applied for. In most countries copyright lasts a minimum of life plus 50 years for most types of written, dramatic and artistic works, and at least 25 years for photographs.

The benefits of IPR literacy

For some, IPR is a phrase evoking golden tickets to untold riches for a corporate elite. In this hazy dreamland, a patent or a copyright will automatically lead to fat royalty checks and long, languid days of leisure, which bring with them the opportunity to catch up on all those Netflix boxsets.

In truth, IPR is as much about your duties and obligations as it is about your rights and benefits. And that’s why it’s so important to have a basic grasp of IPR and bring them up where appropriate. Many funders, or even your employer, set certain limitations on what you can do with the IPR generated while you’re on contract. While your research might not make you rich, you don’t want to be prevented from using your results to develop your future work either.

Moreover, beyond the monetary value of IPR, building an IP portfolio can bolster your individual and institutional reputation. And of course IPR might be handy as evidence in Research Excellence Framework impact case studies.

Navigating copyright

Patents, trademarks and designs are somewhat theoretical for many academics. Their real engagement with IPR is predominantly in protecting the copyright of their writing or in using the writing of others in their research and teaching.

For instance, just because Google gives you a kaleidoscope of images to illustrate your work, it doesn’t mean that you have the right to use them. Similarly, there’s a range of exemptions for directly using the work of others in teaching and research, but a somewhat nebulous understanding of ‘fair dealing’. Staying on the right side of the line can be fraught.

When assessing our rights and obligations, you need to look first at each individual work separately, understand its use, and then consider which licence was most appropriate. If none applied, we should look at possible ‘exceptions’, such as for quotation, use by disabled users, illustration for instruction, or copying for education.

Above all, we need to be sensible about this. Make an assessment of the risk of copyright infringement and, if looking for an exception, consider what is ‘fair use’. It pays to think twice about treading on the toes of others, and we should consult our innovation or copyright experts if our research uses others’ work.

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in July 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

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