A Guide to Intellectual Property

This information is for businesses trading cross-border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and will introduce Intellectual Property (IP), the different types of IP protection and provide some useful information and links.

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Intellectual property (IP) is something unique that you create using your intellect, such as products, inventions, brands, and design. Ideas don’t count as IP under EU and UK law, but things that result from an idea do.

How do I protect my Intellectual Property?

When businesses introduce something new to the world, there’s a risk this idea might be stolen or copied. It’s good practice for you to understand what intellectual property your business has and what needs protecting, this is known as an 'IP Audit'. An IP audit should help you value your IP assets, just as you would your physical assets.

While copyright and design rights are automatic, there are some types of IP where you need to register for more protection. Intellectual property is protected by law with four main types of IP protection, Patents, Trade Marks, Copyrights, and Designs.

What are patents?

Patents can protect a new invention such as a machine or tool and how it works. Businesses can only get a patent if the invention is something that can be made or used, is new, and is not a modification to something that already exists.

What are trade marks?

Trade marks allow businesses to protect brand identities such as words, images, and slogans as this is how your business is recognised in the marketplace. A trade mark does not mean you own a particular word or phrase, rather you own the rights to how that word or phrase is used with respect to specific goods or services. 

What are copyrights?

Copyrights stop people from using your work without permission or claiming it as their own. Copyright laws safeguard writing and literary works, art, photography, films, TV, music, web content, and sound recordings. For small businesses, copyright applies to web pages you create or original photography. It’s worth noting that you can't claim copyright on slogans and names, but these can sometimes be trademarked as mentioned above.

You can choose to mark your work with a copyright symbol that includes your name and the year it was created, but your work will be protected under copyright law regardless of whether you do this with protection beginning as soon as your work is created.

What is design?

Design right protects the shape and configuration (how the different parts are put together) of objects. Automatic protection lasts for 10 years after the design was first sold, or 15 years after it was created.

How has UK Intellectual Property law changed?

Following Brexit there has been changes to UK Intellectual Property Law. The following information outlines some key points for cross-border SMEs to note.

  • The EU and UK intellectual property systems became fully separate.
  • EU trade marks and registered community designs (RCDs) that were registered before the end of the transition period (31 December 2020) are recognised as new comparable UK rights.
  • The UK IPO has issued guidance for new UK trade marks in relation to the registration process, renewals, opt-outs and numbering.
  • The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) commits both the UK and EU to maintaining certain standards of protection for trade marks and designs.
  • For all UK applications for a patent, a trade mark or a design at the UK IPO, you must have an address for service in the UK.

Further information

If your business is based in Ireland, the Intellectual Property Office of Ireland have more information.

If your business is based in Northern Ireland, GOV.UK has more information about intellectual property and your work.

Read the latest update from GOV.UK on retaining protection in the UK for EU Intellectual Property rights.


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Article reviewed: May 2023