What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property (IP) is ideas, information and knowledge. In the University context IP can be viewed as the results and outcomes of research – ‘intellectual’ because it is creative output and ‘property’ because it is viewed as a tradable commodity.

Intellectual property rights (IPR) are specific legal rights which protect the owners of IP. IPR can be subdivided into the major categories below.


A patent is a legal monopoly lasting 20 years granted in exchange for describing an invention and paying fees to the Patent Office.

A patent position is destroyed by public disclosure of the idea before a patent application is filed (except for a short grace period in the US). Think patent before you publish.


Copyright applies to literary and dramatic works, artistic and musical works, audio and video recordings, broadcasts and cable transmissions.

Copyright is also the usual way of protecting software, although some software may be patented if it is a functional part of an invention.

Copyright arises automatically – it does not need to be applied for – and lasts 70 years after the death of the author.

Database right

Database rights apply to databases which are not protected by copyright (an EU right only – maximum duration is 15 years).

Design right

Design right applies to aspects of the shape or configuration of an article. Unregistered design right (which covers computer chips, for example) can protect internal or external features. In the case of registered designs, the features must appeal to and be judged by the eye. (Registered design rights are protected for a maximum of 25 years.)

Trade mark

A trade mark is a mark (logo) or other distinctive sign applied to or associated with products or services, which does not describe the products or services. (Once registered the trademark IPR is unlimited.)

Confidential information

Confidential information is knowledge which only you possess and which you have only revealed under a non-disclosure/confidentiality agreement.

Table: IPR categorisation



Need to apply?

Maximum duration

Patent Inventions Yes  20 years
Copyright Literary, musical, artistic works, and software No  70 years after death of author
Registered design Image – look and feel Yes  25 years
Registered trade mark Name, logo Yes  Unlimited
Confidential information Unpublished secret information No  Unlimited
Database right Databases No  15 years

Successful management of IPR provides the means by which individuals and institutions are able to protect their creative output from imitators.

An understanding of IP and IPRs is an increasingly important aspect of University and business life. Now, more than ever, IP is recognised as a tradable commodity.

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