If you’re a business conducting research and development (R&D), it’s likely you’ll want to consider some form of legal protection for any new products that may result. After all, following all of the time, money and resources you’ve spent in the search for innovation, it’s understandable that you don’t want your competitors to share the rewards.

This legal protection comes in the form of intellectual property (IP). But what are the different types of IP? What do they mean for your R&D projects, and those of your competitors? And which one is the right claim for you? Let’s explore…

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property is the legal ownership of an invention, whether an artistic or scientific creation. In a nutshell, it’s the right to protect your own original ideas from plagiarism - helping innovations flourish by removing the concern and hesitations around ‘me too’ products.

In theory, it simple enough, right? And it could be, providing you start by understanding the subtle differences in the criteria of the four fundamental types of IP: copyright, trademarks, trade secrets and patents.


We can all identify a copyright symbol when we see one, but do we really know what it means?

Copyright protects works by legally stopping others from using it without the creator’s permission. This means people are legally prevented from copying, distributing, adapting, performing or publicly sharing any copyrighted works for the first 70 years of their creation.

This isn’t limited to traditional literary and written works, either. On the contrary, contemporary copyright covers everything from scripts to software!

For businesses developing exciting new innovations, this may sound like the ideal option - but it’s not. Why? Because copyright offers protection of your final product, not the research and development you undertook to get there.

Office folder with inscription Intellectual Property on Office Desktop with Office Supplies. Business Concept on Blured Background. Toned Image.

Trade marks

With that in mind, is the best course of intellectual property for your R&D project to trade mark rather than copyright your development? Not exactly.

A trade mark serves as a means of distinguishing the source of a product or service. This means its sole purpose is to help differentiate brands from one another - not the product or service itself. Because of this, trade marks offer no protection of the concepts, research and development behind an idea - meaning they play no role in legally preventing a competitor from making or developing the same thing.

Trade marks are an essential part of your wider brand identity and recognition, but, when it comes to your R&D, they’ll offer little aid in the protection of your project from competitors.


Trade marks and copyrights share one common pain point: they do little to protect the research and development behind a product or idea. That’s why, when it comes to R&D projects, patents are one of the most important aspects of intellectual property to pursue.

Patents take two forms:

  • Utility patent - covering new machinery, processes or ‘article of manufacture’
  • Design patent - covering original, new or ornamental design for an ‘article of manufacture’

Patents are essentially an exchange (you can learn all about how they work here ). When you file a patent, you’re agreeing to release your novel invention into the public domain in exchange for a temporary monopoly on your market. Until that monopoly window has expired, no competitor is able to copy any aspect of your innovation (providing you undertake the necessary legal action) - making patents a key part of many R&D projects.

Trade secrets

You may be wondering why you need to bother with the legalities of intellectual property. After all, why not just keep your cards close to your chest to ensure your innovations remain exclusive to you and your business?

This approach works in theory, and is often referred to as ‘trade secrets’. Trade secrets can constitute any formula, device or process that is inaccessible to your competitors - giving you a competitive advantage as a result. Of course, the temptation here is clear for all to see: by keeping your R&D a trade secret, you never have to legally disclose your findings to competitors.

This is a risky business, though. R&D innovations that aren’t patented are fair game for any business, and, although you may keep your secrets under wraps, there are other methods of obtaining your findings. From reverse engineering to employee disclosures, there are numerous ways competitors can capitalise on all the hard work you’ve ploughed into your R&D project. Unless it’s sufficiently patented, there’s not much you can do about it!

When it comes to claiming intellectual property on the results of your research and development, it can pay to file a patent. For more information on where to start, or for assistance with your R&D tax relief claim, get in touch with the experts at Lumo. We’re here to guide you through every step of the process.


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