Intellectual property rights in a digital world

Institutions need to know how to share and protect their own outputs while not infringing the rights of others.

Intellectual property rights (IPR), very broadly, are rights granted to creators and owners of works that are the result of human intellectual creativity.

They include:

  • Trade marks which distinguish goods and services
  • Patents for new inventions
  • Registered designs for the design of products
  • Copyright for creative works such as books, paintings and music

IPR in education - using the work of others

Colleges and universities are both substantial creators and consumers of intellectual property and make extensive use of the work of others. Institutions need to be able to share and protect their own intellectual outputs as well as maximise the value of their own assets.

Appreciating the significance of intellectual property law can enable an institution to capitalise on the value of its expertise and help exploit innovative opportunities in an increasingly competitive environment.

Copyright law and sharing content online

In teaching and learning, copyright exceptions permit some limited copying and require no permission or payment to rights holders.

For example, one exception (Section 32 CDPA Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 - "Illustration for instruction")  allows copyright works to be used for illustrative purposes during teaching as long as their use is fair, non-commercial, limited to the persons giving and receiving instruction, and acknowledges the rights holders. Many materials used in presentations by teachers, including those which are streamed remotely to students, are likely to fall within this provision.

For more extensive use of the work of others, the sector pays licence fees to creators and entrepreneurs.

As the adoption of blended learning accelerates, it is necessary to build confidence and expertise among staff and students to make the most of the copyright exceptions for teaching and learning. Copyright literacy can significantly expand the digital skills and confidence of students and staff.

See how one university’s approach to copyright education aims to support its strategic objectives by informing policy and practice in innovation and creation of new knowledge - University of Kent 2020 Copyright Literacy Strategy (pdf).

Licences and ownership

Understanding how licensed content can be used and re-used is also key to delivering efficiencies. Where more and more learning content is digital, institutions need to get the best value from resources they licence.

A licence is a contractual agreement between the copyright owner and user which sets out what the user can do with a work.

For example, the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) licence allows the photocopying, scanning and sharing of copies of digital content from books, journals and electronic publications for educational purposes over secure distance learning networks (subject to terms and conditions).

Managing licences via Jisc

Jisc works on behalf of members and customers to negotiate and license the high-quality digital content agreements needed to support teaching and learning and academic research.

You can browse, purchase and manage your subscriptions to all the digital content and services licensed via Jisc agreements through licence subscriptions manager


Trade marks

A trade mark is “any sign capable of being represented graphically which is capable of distinguishing goods or services of one undertaking from those of another”. Read more about trade marks on the IPO website.


A patent is an intellectual property right that has a life of 20 years and protects inventions and throughout the UK so long as renewal fees are paid every year. Read more about patents on the IPO website.  

Registered design

A registered design protects the shape or overall visual appearance of a product or a part of a product. The appearance of product may result from a combination of elements such as shapes, colours and materials.


Copyright is a legally enforceable property right that makes it possible for the holder of that right to profit from a work such as a book by preventing others from exploiting the work without their  say so for a period of time. Copyright protects the expression of ideas but not the idea itself. For a work to gain copyright protection it must be original and expressed in a fixed form - for example, in writing (whether print or electronic).

Intellectual property after 1 January 2021

Changes to UK intellectual property law take effect after 1 January 2021 to ensure the smooth departure from EU IP systems. Very briefly:

  • Trade marks
    Comparable UK trade mark and design rights are introduced at the end of the transition period under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement
  • Patents
    A European patent can be applied for through the UK Intellectual Property Office or direct to the European Patent Office (EPO) to protect a patent in more than 30 countries in Europe, using the (non-EU) European Patent Convention (EPC)
  • Designs
    Re-registered UK designs take effect at the end of the transition period under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement
  • Copyright
    Most UK copyright works (such as books, films and music) remain protected in the EU and the UK because of the UK’s continued participation in the international treaties on copyright. For the same reason, EU copyright works continue to be protected in the UK. This applies to works made before and after 1 January 2021

Further and more detailed information on changes to intellectual property after 1 January 2021 are available on the UK Intellectual Property Office website

Further reading

This guide is made available under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND).