Intellectual property - the smart creative's guide

Intellectual property. Sounds official doesn't it? That would be because it is. Very.

But what exactly is it and how is it different to copyright? We demistify the jargon and tell you how you can 'work around' it a little, so you can be properly creative without getting into any legal hot water.

Copyright and Intellectual Property - Yoda Star Wars


What is IP?

In short--as a Creative--IP is your best friend. Intellectual Property is the legal protection granted to any unique creation of an individual or organisation (the business or client you work for, for instance). It protects you and your ownership of your work, so respecting other people's is a must.

How's it different to Copyright you might ask...

Well in short it's not - much. Copyright is simply one type of Intellectual Property and the only one other than 'Design Right' that's automatically granted to the creator. And despite what many people think you don't actually need a copyright symbol anywhere near your work to claim the copyright, it's yours the second you publish.

Other forms of Intellectual Property include Trade Marks, Registered Designs and good old Patents - but as these are all for 'unique' or new creations you'll have to go through an application process to prove you aren't stepping on anyone else's toes. 

I'm a designer/illustrator/editor, how does this apply to me?

Well, unless you're the next James Dyson, Patents and Registered Designs are not likely to be something you'll need to have much to do with. Which is a good thing as they can be a tad tricky, complicated and expensive to get sorted.

What you really need to know about are the dynamic duo of Trademarks and Copyrights. These two aspects of IP can serve you well but can also trip you up all too easily. If you're a designer, photographer or marketing-type person you especially need to know what you can and can't do.

Copyright - when imitation is not the best form of flattery

If you create something, from a photo to a fabulous hand-drawn card design, these are automatically yours and can't be reused, distributed or adapted without your express permission. The 'adapted' is the especially important part of this.

Some people think that simply making a few tweaks to someone else's work means it's now a new piece they can use with impunity (naughty) - this isn't actually the case. Even substantial changes may land you in it. Taking inspiration is one thing, but if anything is recognisably part of the original work it's a big no-no. Think of it like writing essays in school - borrowing from many sources is research, borrowing from a few is plagarism. 

In most countries copyright lasts a minimum of the lifetime of the work's creator plus 50 years for most types of written, dramatic, and artistic works, and at least 25 years for photographs. So odds are that mostly everything you'd want to use is still covered by copyright, especially films which have a whopping 70 years of protection above and beyond the death of their creator.

A few things to consider

If you're doing a simple design such as a vector graphic, or taking a photo of a popular landmark, bear in mind that it'll be be very difficult to prove that this is an original work, so enforcing your copyright might be close to impossible in these cases.

But if you work in patterns for cards, fabrics or wallpapers, Design Rights are the way to go. This applies to the configuration or arrangement of the objects in a design or item, and protects your work for 10 years after it was first sold or 15 years after it was created - whichever is earliest. 

You’ll need proof of when you created a design if you want to claim Design Right though and this can be in the form of copies of your design drawings or photos that you've either kept with a bank or solicitor, or that you’ve sent to yourself by registered, dated post and kept unopened.

Also some people are nice enough to 'offer up' their work under a Creative Commons license, a great system that provides their work--free of charge--to the community for reuse and adaptation. Some licenses come with provisos though, so make sure to check if the work's creator wants to be credited, informed of the use, or wants you to make your adapted work available as Creative Commons (CC) as well. You can discover what's available via the Creative Commons search website here -

Don't even think about it

Trademarks. This is where you really need to watch yourself. These are product names, logos, taglines (or even jingles) that have gone through a four-month process of registration with the Intellectual Property Office and are considered unique and afforded the legal heft to stay that way. If you are creating any of these for your own brand you'll have to check no-one else has registered something similar first, and you can do that on the UK Government Trademark search page here - 

So what can I do if I want to use something that someone else owns as part of my own work?

That's a very good question! There's lots of things, such as aspects of popular culture, that you might want to feature in your own designs at some point. The first job is to identify the Copyright, Design or Trademark holder. This you can do using the websites mentioned above. You can then look up their policy on use and licensing of their copyrighted and trademarked designs, see if there's a cost, and see if it's still worth it. 

The big boys

Oddly one of the world's biggest and most powerful companies--Disney--is actually one of the nicest to Creatives. And this vast media empire covers not only classic Disney properties, but also everything from Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm as well. 

They kindly class 'hand-drawn artwork', clothing and even themed parties as non-commercial uses of their characters. But you do still need to ask their permission first. And for this you'll need a little bit of patience as it could take them up to eight weeks to get back to you, and you'll have to use good old snail mail and contact the US head office. You can find the full requirements for applying here - Get permission from Disney

So where's the wiggle room? 

Okay, so we've now done the 'what you can't do' bit. So if you're the impatient sort, what exactly can you do without seeking permission? Well there are exceptions to every rule, and in this case it's making with the funny. Parody, Caricature and Pastiche (along with reviews and editorial use) are the only way to navigate around the iron-clad IP laws. Thanks to living in a nation where the satirical cartoonist is king, you can freely copy something as long as you're making fun of it. Great huh? 

But it's always best to ask. It's only polite after all. 




29 Dec 2015 01:34
A lot of Etsy sellers could do with reading this - there is so much copyright infringement going on there and very little seems to get done about it.
Su Mwamba
04 Jan 2016 09:25
Really helpful info - I have bookmarked! I've had several images stolen online previously so now always add my copyright 'watermark' on pics I post. Even though the copyright is automatically applied to work, if it's physically visible, people are (hopefully!) less likely to assume it is free for the taking...
28 Jan 2016 15:01
I've just copy and pasted this blog so I have this for future ref - really useful
29 May 2016 12:26
Very helpful having the facts laid out like this.

Add your comment

* denotes a required field

will not be displayed

include a link to your website

Go to Blog home

Limited time only!

To claim your exclusive offer just enter your email address below. We’ll send your code directly to your inbox so you can hit the presses, pronto! Be quick though, free delivery ends midnight 26 April.

SubmitNot interested