What is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property is something unique that you physically create. An idea alone is not intellectual property (IP), but once that idea has progressed into something tangible it can be considered as IP. For example, an idea for a book doesn’t count, but the words you’ve written do.

The foundation of many innovative business will rely on IP, so it helps to know a bit about ownership and the different options to protect it.

Owning intellectual property

You own intellectual property if you:

  • created it (and it meets the requirements for copyright, a patent or a design)

  • bought intellectual property rights from the creator or a previous owner

  • have a brand that could be a trade mark, eg a well-known product name

Intellectual property can:

  • have more than one owner - particularly with discoveries made in research, the collaborative nature of projects means that inventions will have more than one owner.

  • belong to people or businesses - contractual agreements between employers and employees can assign any IP developed during your contract as belonging to that organisation

  • be sold or transferred

If you’re self-employed, you usually own the intellectual property even if your work was commissioned by someone else - unless your contract with them gives them the rights.

(This could follow a quiz format with yes/no answers to be more engaging?)

Ownership in Research

By default in the UK, the inventor(s) own an invention. The inventor is the “actual deviser” of the invention or made an inventive contribution, with documented evidence of their role played as an inventor!

Somebody who contributed resources to the project and development such as lending equipment or being named on the grant would not be classed as an inventor.

When it comes to universities, PhD students are not classed as employees so what happens to the ownership of IP?

Depending on the institution, there are clauses assigning IP developed to the university. Additionally ideas often originate between a student and academic supervisor. Since the supervisor is employed by the university, the IP is owned by the university.

Postdocs are classed as employees and so, while it can vary with contract, the IP is owned by the university.

IP Protection

Having the right type of intellectual property protection helps you to stop people stealing or copying:

  • the names of your products or brands

  • your inventions

  • the design or look of your products

  • things you write, make or produce

The type of protection you can get depends on what you’ve created. Some types of protection apply automatically, while others you have to formally apply for. The most common types of IP protection are:

  • Copyright - for creative work

  • Patents - for inventions

  • Design - for the visual appearance of products

  • Trade Marks - for brand protection

(I see this as like a cube layout, with the different associated symbols?)

Any one product might constitute a combination of all these things!

INSERT - game/interactive piece with several products and pop-outs identifying the different IP

These 4 are the main ways to protect IP. However there are some cases where formal applications don’t protect the idea as much as the inventors might like…

There’s another class of protection classified as ‘trade secrets’ or ‘know-how’. The terms of filing a patent mean that after the agreed exclusivity time-frame, the knowledge becomes publicly available and so anybody could use, make or sell your product or technology. For products such as Coca-Cola, their recipe is not patented to avoid the public availability of it. Instead it is kept under wraps as a trade secret, so that only those that need to know it will know it and there’s no formal release of the recipe to the world.


Automatic protection

Type of IP Examples
Copyright Writing and literary works, art, photography, films, TV, music, web content, sound recordings
Design Rights Shapes of objects

Protection requiring application

For IP that requires an application for protenction, the process can take varying amounts of time.

Type of IP Examples Time allowed to apply
Trade marks Product names, logos, jingles 4 months
Registered designs Appearance of a product including, shape, packaging, patterns, colours, decoration 1 month
Patents Inventions and products, eg machines and machine parts, tools, medicines Around 5 years

INSERT: patent application timeline



When it comes to moving discoveries into the world, the underlying ideas and related technologies form the novel aspect of the research and to pursue commercialisation, would constitute the IP. As scientists, our most meaningful interaction with IP is through patenting.

What actually is a patent?

A patent constitutes an agreement between the inventor and the state, containing a full disclosure of your invention and how it works. Once agreed, the originator of the idea is granted a time-limited monopoly to exploit their discovery.

Why file a patent?

Patenting presents a huge commercial advantage, protecting your right to leverage the product of your intellect into the marketplace without direct competition. In patenting your technology or product, you gain the exclusive right to make, sell and use it.

Once patented you can also choose to license the technology or product, so that only those you choose to allow can make, sell or use it.

Buzzword = Freedom to Operate - patents don’t grant you the right to exploit your invention, only the ability to stop other people from using it!

A patent forms the core worth of an early spin-out or start-up enabling:

  • grant funding

  • investment

  • protection from competitors

  • partnerships

Can you patent?

How do you know if you’ve invented something? What constitutes an invention?

Ask yourself the following:

  • Have you solved or overcome a technical problem in your field?

  • Is your solution to that problem new?

  • Was there an inventive step, or was it a logical step forward?

  • Does it have potential commercial value?

An Inventive Step

You can not patent something which is merely an obvious adaptation of what is already known

The Patent Process

(A brief step by step guide on how you’d navigate the process along with a timeline)

What a patent looks like?

What happens once you have a patent?

Some things to be aware of surrounding a patent:

  • time frames for additions to the patent filing

  • filing further patents

  • administration fees for patent lifetime

Once the patent is filed, the goal is to leverage the technology into the marketplace. Assuming that the IP is owned by the university, there are 2 options: (could be interactive flow diagram using the pencil people)

Option 1 - licencing - work to find an appropriate existing vehicle

  • TTO works to find a 3rd party

  • IP is licenced into that company for a yearly fee, split between uni and academic

  • Academic could be paid as a consultant for further knowledge exchange

Option 2 - Start-Up/Spin-Out - licence the IP into a company that you operate

  • IP licenced into the company for equity, fixed fee or royalties

Freedom to Operate - patents don’t grant you the right to exploit your invention, only the ability to stop other people from using it!

REMEMBER - patents can only be filed for inventions that haven’t been publicly disclosed… That means any non-confidential mention of the invention that is publicly accessible nullifies the application. This includes:

  • earlier patent applications,

  • journal or press articles,

  • conference abstracts and presentations,

  • PhD theses,

  • publications available on the internet,

  • a prior public use of the invention.