Intellectual property rights come in many forms. The best-known and most economically important rights are copyright, patents and trade marks.
- Copyright protects a range of different types of works, from books to records, from TV programmes to computer software. To gain copyright protection, works generally need to be original, although in English law this is not a difficult hurdle to surmount. Subject to a limited range of exceptions, a copyright owner has the legal right to prevent others from copying and using copies of the work.
- Patents protect inventions. In exchange for publicly describing an invention, and inventor is given a monopoly over the exploitation of that invention for a limited period. Patents are registered rights: unlike copyright, patents rights do not automatically protect inventors. They will only be granted after a lengthy and often expensive application process.
- Trade mark rights are designed to prevent the misappropriation of a business's identity and reputation, and to help guarantee the origin of goods and services. Registered trade mark rights must, like patents, be applied for. However, in many jurisdictions there are also unregistered trade mark rights. In the UK, these unregistered rights take the form of a rights in "passing off".
- Registered and unregistered design rights constitute another major category of intellectual property. There are also more specialised rights, such as database right, plant variety rights, and rights in semi-conductor topologies.
One important aspect of most intellectual property rights is that they can, like other forms of property, be the subject matter of sales, transfers, leases and other dealings: intellectual property contracts.
There are two main categories of such dealings.
First, there assignments of intellectual property rights. An assignment is a transfer of the ownership of a right for one person or company to another. Assignments may be made for consideration (i.e. as part of an exchange) or by way of a deed. In the UK, and assignment of intellectual property rights will usually need to be in writing and signed by or on behalf of the assignor.
Second, there are licences of intellectual property rights. A licence is a grant of a right to do some things which would, but for the licence, be an infringement of the intellectual property rights. Licences can be very narrow, or they can be so broad that they have the same practical effect as an assignment.