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What is intellectual property?

What if a competitor has adopted a logo that can easily be mistaken for the one that you use? Suppose you invented some brilliant equipment but you feel a rival has blatantly copied your design? Or maybe you have written something for your business and it is reproduced somewhere without your permission?

All businesses can use the law to protect what are known as ‘intellectual property rights’. It often pays to get advice about this, as it can be a legal minefield. The three most commonly used forms of legal protection are trademarks, patents and copyright.


A trademark is used to distinguish your goods and services from those of other businesses. It might be words, some kind of logo or both together. A distinctive trademark is a valuable asset that allows customers to recognise your business and your products.

In the UK, registering your trademark with the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) protects the ownership of the mark across the UK. If you have a registered trademark you can put the ® symbol next to it to act as a warning to others that you own it.

Using this symbol for an unregistered logo is an offence. Although registering a trademark will cost money, a major advantage of registration is that legal action should be more straightforward than with an unregistered trademark.


A registered patent protects new inventions. Registration in the UK is also with the IPO. Patent law relates to the way in which products work, what they do, how they do it, what they are made of and how they are made.

The owner of a patent has a legal right to prevent other businesses from engaging in activities such as making or selling the invention without permission. Patents can be legally protected for up to 20 years. After that, other businesses may copy the invention.

To register a patent, an invention has to meet certain rules. The invention must be genuinely new and different.

Broadly speaking, patents can only be registered in relation to something that has a tangible or a physical existence. So services cannot be patented. Bear in mind that in the UK, holding a registered patent means that the IPO will publish certain technical details for everyone to see.


Copyright prevents the unauthorised copying of written works, including items such as instruction manuals and technical drawings, not just stories, or song lyrics. Copyright protection can also cover film and audio recordings, broadcasts and reproduction of any sort on the internet.

So in certain circumstances, even photographs of your product may be subject to copyright. Many written publications contain all sorts of legalese about copyright, but it is important to bare in mind that there is no need to register copyright in order to have the protection of the law.

Copyright does not protect ideas. For example, if you develop a new service for customers, it is not possible to protect it through copyright. It is only when the work itself is fixed in some way, for example in writing or as a recording, that copyright applies. Although copyright can protect the artwork of your logo, you should also take advice about registering the logo as a trademark.

Intellectual property rights outside of the UK

If a business is trading in several different countries, you will need to take advice about intellectual property rights. These rights often have to be registered separately in each country and the extent of your legal protection will vary.

For example, many companies have had problems in China with intellectual property rights being abused, although the Chinese government has recently agreed to improve the law and to enforce it more rigorously.

What is intellectual property?

How FSB can help

We understand that if you have an original idea, the last thing you want is someone copying that idea or seeking to pass your work off as theirs. We provide a range of useful fact sheets on our online legal document pages that can help.

We also offer members access to our Legal Protection Scheme which can include professional legal advice from trained specialists, together with advice on intellectual property laws, including trademarks, patents and copyright.

The scheme covers many areas of law (not just intellectual property rights) as well as tax advice.

If you're not a member of FSB, you can sign up today, it only takes a few minutes. You might also want to take a look at our resource section, which is full of useful blogs and infographics.

Legal Protection Scheme from FSB

Legal protection covers various scenarios and ensures you and your business are covered

Find out more