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1st December 2020

Understanding the different types of IP

IP or Intellectual Property comes in a variety of forms including Copyright, Design right, Trademarks, Registered Designs, and Patents.

Intellectual property protection can help you protect your work against copying or theft. There are a variety of protections, each with their own application process.

IP protection can be a useful tool to stop copycat competitors, boost company valuation and generate additional income streams.  It is possible to accidentally infringe someone else’s IP during product design and development.  Understanding what registrations already exist is wise before embarking on a new product development.  There are also tax benefits to certain IP protections.

In addition to IP protection there is also open source software licencing, that needs to be understood to avoid falling foul of its licencing requirements.

What is open source software?

Open source software is where the source code is made available for anyone to view, change or improve.  This transparency can bring significant improvements as there are multiple software engineers from different companies and countries using, testing and debugging. The software becomes independent of the original author.

This is the opposite to proprietary or closed source software where only the final, compiled product is released, perhaps with APIs so that no-one knows what the code contains or its full capabilities or deficiencies.

Third party software licences range from “Public Domain” through to “Copyleft” or reciprocal licences.

“Public Domain” allows anyone to use or modify without restriction.  The code should be treated with caution and be checked, tested and treated as your own.  You don’t want to introduce a security hole or set of bugs that could be lurking inside.  A word of warning, code that doesn’t have licence details does not automatically mean its public domain!

“Permissive licences” known by names such as Apache, BSD or MIT licence are very popular with free and open source software and bring minimal requirements for their use.

“LGPL” is short for GNU Lessor General Public Licence.  If you just compile or link to an LGPL-licenced library you can release your own software under whichever licence you wish.  BUT if you modify the library in any way including pasting parts into your own code base you must then release your application under LGPL licence.

“Copyleft” licence examples are GPL.  You can change the licenced source code and incorporate it in your own products BUT you must release your full code under the same GPL licence terms.  Care is needed here as the original licence may only allow personal use of the code.  Also the users of your software also get the right to modify the source code meaning you have to release the source code, something that you may not wish to do if you have commercial competitors.

What other types of IP protection are there?

Automatic

There are protections that automatically provide cover.  Copyright applies to creative work including art, literature, music, photography and film. Interestingly copyright also covers original software, printed circuit board layout and database design.  The © symbol isn’t a requirement to gain copyright protection, it is there to serve as a reminder or warning to potential infringers.

Applied for

Trademarks such as logos, names, and sounds can be registered to prevent others using them and passing off sub-standard products which could damage your brand or dilute sales.

The application process is fairly straightforward, inexpensive and can take a few months.  A local IP attorney can help with the process if needed.

Patents can protect inventions and methods and typically need a patent attorney to ensure they are written and filed correctly.  Patents are restricted to the countries they are filed in and costs increase accordingly.  Once granted there is a tax benefit, Patent Box, that reduces corporation tax on products which use the patented technology.

More useful links can be found below.

Patents

Trade marks

Gov UK Search for Trademarks 

Registered designs

Gov UK Search Registered Design

TMDN Design View search

Software licence links

GNU Operating System – Software Licence information

Apache software licence 

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Embedded software – What to consider for product development