IP, patents and copyright

Innovations and creative work that belong to a person or company are their intellectual property (IP). Anyone who creates an original piece of work usually wants to be recognised for their work and to be able to make money from it.

Copyright and patents can be used to protect the IP in software, hardware and computer devices.


You can register ownership of an invention or new process and be given a patent. This can stop rivals from copying the idea for a set number of years.

Patents can apply to many different aspects of a device. With smartphones, patents apply to the user interface, the design of the software and each physical component inside the device. As components get smaller, each individual part of a new product is usually patented separately.

Smartphones are often at the centre of patent wars as there are many patents involved in a device. Companies are not keen to share profits. They are likely to sue each other if they can prove that their IP has been infringed.

Computer scientist Steve Furber explains why the creators of mobile processors use patents


From the moment you create an original piece of work, you become the legal copyright holder.

Copyright gives the creators of media the rights to control how media is used and distributed. Music, books, video and software can all be covered by copyright. Copying material that is subject to copyright without permission is illegal.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) licences make it easier and legal to share data online.

CC licences help copyright owners share their work while keeping the copyright. They allow the copyright owner to say exactly what other people can do with it. For example, a CC licence might say that other people can copy and distribute the copyright owner's work if they give them credit.

There are a number of CC licences. The four licences in this table are commonly used.

AttributionIt can be copied, modified, distributed, displayed and performed but the copyright owner must be given credit.
Non-commercialIt can be copied, modified, distributed and displayed but no profit can be made from it.
No derivative worksIt can be copied, distributed, displayed and performed but cannot be modified.
Share-alikeIt can be modified and distributed but must be covered by an identical licence.

Doug Belshaw from Mozilla explains how the Creative Commons licence is used