TECHNICAL BULLETIN - The difference between patents, copyright and trade marks

There is often a great deal of confusion over the difference between trade marks, patents and copyright, so here we will try and clear up any misunderstandings.

Intellectual property (IP) has an important role to play in helping us, and our customers, to create and generate more value and reward.

IP is a complex area and we can only cover the surface, but hopefully this will help clarify the key differences.  However, we would recommend you consult a specialist advisor if you were ever considering taking any legal action.

One way to approach IP is as a pyramid.

The base of the pyramid: patents

At the base are patents. These are inventions or innovations, which can be protected by law in most countries of the world and give the patent owner strong rights. 

Patents can be expensive and time consuming to register, and just as expensive and time consuming to defend.  But they offer serious protection and can be a source of real profit growth, either by using the patent in your own products or by licensing the patent to other companies and gaining a revenue stream.

For example, at UNION, as part of the worldwide ASSA ABLOY group, we are seeking to develop new patentable locking mechanisms and other security devices every year.

There is currently only one way to prevent third party manufacturers from producing copies of keys and selling them to anybody they choose, without necessarily observing any security precautions. That is if the design of the key is patented. Patents are valid for 20 years and allow manufacturers to take legal action against anyone supplying keys to that design without permission. When specifying patented products you should ensure that the manufacturer’s patents are still current, apply worldwide and will be enforced.

UNION recommends Masterkey systems with a long patent life to achieve maximum protection. By providing the manufacturer with control over key copying, this limits the potential for illegal cutting. Plus, patented features are much more difficult to duplicate.

Integral to this, the distribution of registered key blanks, only supplied through registered dealers to system owners, maintains a high level of security within Masterkey suites. A restricted registration process ensures key blanks are not in general circulation but – crucially – the authorisation process can be developed with varying degrees of restriction to suit the application, making it a more accessible and flexible system.

Masterkey systems need to be well-planned and secured through patent protections and authorisation controls. To aid maintenance and ensure the efficiency of these systems, suite extensions and key copying need to be accessible for authorised personnel, encouraging the systems to be used to their full functionality. Accessibility needs to be balanced with security, but manufacturers who are able to combine this and offer registered users clarity in the ordering and managing process will succeed in creating a solution that is fit-for-purpose.

Only patent-protected Masterkey systems can effectively stop illegal duplication, meaning borrowed keys cannot be copied without authorisation and system security is unlikely to be compromised.

The middle of the pyramid: registered designs and copyright

The next level of the pyramid is registered designs and copyright. Registered designs are very useful as they can protect the ‘look’ and design of a product, preventing competitors from imitating too closely. It is a more difficult area to enforce but still offers good protection in the right circumstances.

Copyright applies to words, images and sounds, with the ‘author’ or creator automatically owning the copyright. This means no one can use, for example, photographs from your website or brochure without your permission. It can also apply to the words in instruction or technical manuals, which are a regular target for copying.

Incidentally, if you use a design or advertising agency to create your logo, brochure or website, are you sure you know who owns the copyright?

If you’ve paid for it, you might think you do, but that might not be the fact in law!

All systems of key control rely on the limited availability of registered keys. These should only be available from reputable locksmiths and security centres, which are responsible for checking identification and only supplying keys to properly authorised people. If keys become freely available – or if pirate copies are produced and circulated on the black market – then security could potentially be critically undermined.

The peak of the pyramid: registered trademarks and brands

At the peak of the pyramid are registered trademarks and brands. Here at UNION, the registered trademarks and our brand are our most valuable business assets.  They are almost certainly more valuable than all the buildings and machinery and other ‘physical assets’ we own in the UK.

Counterfeit and fake goods, not to mention the issue of ‘passing off’, is a challenge that seriously affects businesses, reducing the value of their innovation and, in the worst scenario, potentially even leading to cuts and job losses.

As a result, we police and rigorously enforce our registered trademark and brand protection policies, ensuring UNION’s security solutions remain innovative and in high demand.