Definition of terms

BGS Intellectual Property Rights

This section provides a quick guide to the definitions and meanings of widely-used terms (and their acronyms) in the world of ‘intellectual property rights’, or IPR.

It is not exhaustive and is provided for general information purposes only. It is not provided as a definitive statement of UK or international law and should not be construed as professional legal advice.

What are intellectual property and intellectual property rights?




Background rights or background intellectual property. Any IPR already in existence before any new work is undertaken. Known as background intellectual property rights, or prior rights.



Copyright gives the creators of certain kinds of material the right to control ways in which their material can be used e.g. the right of an author or their assignee, under statute, to print and publish their literary or artistic work, exclusively of all other persons. This right may be had in maps, charts, engravings, plays and musical compositions, as well as in books and software.

Copyright is the right to prevent copying; it does not confer an absolute monopoly right but enables the copyright owner to object to unauthorised uses of their work. These rights start as soon as the material is recorded in writing or in any other way.

Copyright does not protect the content of a work; it only protects its form. For copyright protection, the work must exist in some material form. Copyright rests in the organisation of data and the manner of its presentation, rather than in the data itself. Protection covers the version in which ideas are expressed, rather than the idea itself, which is not required to be unique. There is no infringement of copyright if the ideas in one work are used in another.

There is no need to register copyright in a work; it arises as soon as the work is created. There is no official registration system. Once a work is created, it is generally automatically protected almost everywhere in the world, under the Berne and International Copyright Conventions.

Copyright is a property right and, like physical property, can be bought and sold, inherited or otherwise transferred.

Copyright ownership

Someone commissioning a work does not automatically own the copyright of it. This depends on the nature of the agreement that is made. A photographer commissioned to take a photograph may own the photograph, but not necessarily the copyright of that photograph.

Creative works

Includes all written, graphic, audio, visual and any other materials whether on paper, disc, tape, digital file or any other media.

Crown copyright

Copyright-protected material produced by employees of the Crown in the course of their duties. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO) manages all Crown copyright-protected material and delegates some responsibilities to its agencies e.g. the Ordnance Survey.

Most material originated by ministers and civil servants is protected by Crown copyright, as are publications resulting from Government department-commissioned works. Works produced by Royal Commissions are Crown copyright, unless joint authorship by non-Crown personnel is involved.

Crown copyright subsists in material for 125 years from the end of the year in which they were made, or, if they were published within 75 years of that ‘made in’ date, for 50 years from the end of the year of publication.

The status of Crown copyright is not affected by EC legislation, i.e. Ordnance Survey topography will be subject to 50 years copyright protection, not the revised 70 years.



Collection of works, data or other independent materials arranged in a systematic or methodical way and capable of being individually accessed by electronic or other means, e.g. a paper telephone directory is a database.


A design is a property that, like any other business commodity, may be bought, sold, hired or licensed.

Design rights

Design rights are automatic. From the moment an article is created, it is protected. Design rights prohibit others from reproducing or manufacturing the article for 15 years after its creation.

Domain name

The name by which a company or organisation is known on the internet. It works like a company name. It is a convenient, short-hand way of identifying a company’s website address.

Duration of copyright

On 1 January 1996, the duration of copyright in the European Economic area changed. Literary, dramatic, musical and artistic copyright expires at the end of the period of 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author died (formerly 50 years).

Copyright now extends for a 70-year period from the date of creation/publication, or from the end of the calendar year in which the author died. The copyright date moves at the beginning of the calendar year.


European Patent Office (EPO)

Body set up to administer patents issued under the European Patent Convention (EPC). Under the terms of the convention, a patent issued by the EPO, which is based in Munich, is valid in all signatory states of the EPC (which includes most, but not all, members of the European Union, as well as several additional states).


Foreground rights

Intellectual property generated from the work carried out under a project (including but not limited to inventions, designs, processes, know-how, techniques, drawings, specifications, technical information, copyright material, software, data and any other information). Often referred to as ‘results’ that include information, reports, drawings, designs, semiconductor topography, computer software, inventions and trade and service marks.



Human assets

[See Know-how]



When the user does not have prior written permission to reproduce material from the author/original source of materials (tables, figures, diagrams, cross-sections, photographs etc).

With respect to patents, infringement involves making, using or selling an invention without permission from the creator of that invention for which a patent is in effect.

There is no infringement of copyright if the ideas in one work are used in another.

Intellectual property (IP)

Generic names for intellectual property rights that have commercial value covering patents, copyrights and trademarks. Recent additions to the category of intellectual property include industrial design and integrated circuit topography (the term used to describe the three-dimensional configuration of electronic circuits).

IPR portfolio

A generic term used to cover the range of IP owned, protected and managed by an organisation. IP portfolios vary and are predetermined by the nature of the business and type of company or organisation concerned.

Normally they will contain one or more of the following: patents, trade marks, registered designs, copyright, unregistered design rights, design rights, database rights, semi-conductor topography rights, rights in and to trade or business names, trade secrets, know-how or confidential information, and any similar or analogous rights or forms of protection in any part of the world.




The intellectual capacity of the human assets of an organisation, which relates to their skills and knowledge, often accumulated over a number of years. This will be associated with technical information, graphics, manuals, specifications, designs, data manipulation, commercial intelligence and methodologies. It can be protected via confidentiality, or in conjunction with other forms of IPR.

Knowledge transfer

The use of the results of scientific undertakings and their applications into the wider marketplace via

  • collaboration with industry to solve problems (often in the context of contract research)
  • the dissemination of information, normally by way of publication
  • licensing of technology to industry users
  • provision of paid consultancy advice
  • the licensing of data and other copyright-protected materials
  • the creation and sale of software
  • the formation of spin-out companies
  • joint ventures with industry
  • the interchange of staff between the public and the private sector



Acts and statutes from the UK Government and European Directives, which become law after two years.


A formal document of permission from the relevant authorities, which is granted to the applicant to perform a certain act over a given time period, an act that would otherwise be illegal.

This confers a legal right to use materials/data/equipment/technology. For BGS’s data it is usually in the form of a licence document authorising use subject to terms and conditions. A licence is a contract.

Licence types

Exclusive licences: those that exclude the organisation granting it as well as rest of the world.

Sole licences: those that permit both the rights owner and the licensee to use material to the exclusion of all others.


The act of issuing a licence document to other parties, granting them licences so that they have the right to use particular materials.


Those who are granted licences, e.g. a holder of a valid BGS Digital Dataset Licence [and/or other BGS copyright licence(s)] appropriate to user requirements.


Those who grant licences (usually the owners of the IP). In this case, the relevant authority is the British Geological Survey (BGS) on behalf of UK Research and Innovation/Natural Environment Research Council (UKRI/NERC), who is able to grant permission to users wanting to use BGS geological data in digital or analogue format. BGS IPR holds the responsibility for granting such licences.



A digital medium combining sound, image, text, data of every kind, and involving a certain amount of interactivity, a software application allowing navigation between the various types of data.



Ownership of copyright

Belongs to the maker/author unless they are employed, in which case the terms and conditions of employment will predetermine copyright and other IP ownership. Usually in the course of employment the IP created belongs to the employer, whose works represent considerable investment, training costs, capital costs, and salaries. The expectation on the part of the owner is that they will achieve a financial return on the investment which can be used to both enhance the original and also to fund new developments.

In the case of BGS staff, the IPR of materials generated is vested in UKRI/NERC. Under current legislation, authors/makers (even those that do not own the copyright) have a moral right to be cited as the creator of the work.



A legal grant-given certificate, which permits an inventor exclusive rights to prevent others from producing, using, selling or importing the invention for a limited period (usually 20 years). Legal action can be taken against those who infringe the patent by copying the invention, or selling it, without permission from the patent owner.

A patent application must satisfy an examiner that the invention is novel, useful (i.e. has an industrial application) and involves an inventive step. The latter requirement usually means that the invention should not be obvious to a person skilled in the relevant technology. Patents can cover products, processes or uses, or a combination of these. Patents can be bought, sold or licensed.

Prior rights

Any IPR already in existence before any new work is undertaken. Known as background rights, or background intellectual property rights.

In patent law, prior art refers to publicly available, existing knowledge that is relevant to an invention for which a patent applicant is seeking protection. If the prior art is too closely related to the claimed invention, the application may be rejected on the grounds of lack of novelty. Patent offices are required to check for the absence of prior art before awarding a patent.

Public Sector Research Establishments (PSRE)

PSREs are a diverse collection of public bodies carrying out research in pursuit of various government objectives, including improving quality of life and economic development, through advances in basic science, informing government policy making, and statutory and regulatory functions. NERC is a PSRE.




Covers all physical and electronic acts of copying and any form of producing copies for distribution in paper or electronic form. It includes photocopying, photography, microfiche, tracing, digitising, scanning, redrawing, translation, adaptation and manipulation.




Any sign, words, logos, picture, image, name, symbol, smell or noise or a combination of these which identifies a product and can distinguish the goods and services of one particular party from those of another with similar products or services.

Usually consists of a distinctive design, word or series of words placed on the product label. Traditionally, trademarks have been confined to 2D marks e.g. words, graphics and combinations of the two, but 3D shapes and descriptive words may be registered as long as they are distinctive enough to be recognised as trademarks and satisfy the criteria for registration.

Once officially registered, the use of the trademark is legally restricted to the owner or manufacturer. Trademark owners have the exclusive right to prevent third parties from using the identical mark or a similar mark for the marketing and sales of similar goods or services, where this is likely to cause confusion.



Those persons employing BGS materials for (a) the production of analogue or electronic/digital publications, services or products based on BGS materials; (b) academic undertakings including educational, teaching/instruction, training, and for research purposes.


Useful links

Queries or complaints

If you have any queries or complaints about copyright please contact

For any queries or complaints about digital licencing please contact the IPR and digital licensing manager.

For other complaints please refer to customer feedback and complaints procedures.

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