Protecting intellectual property (IP) is crucial in today's competitive business environment, where intangible assets play a significant role in determining value and growth. Ensuring the adequate protection of these assets requires a strong understanding of the requirements for protection and a fundamental grasp of the various types of IP.


Trademarks protect symbols, words, phrases, or designs that distinguish goods or services from those of others. They serve as identifiers of source and quality, helping consumers recognise and associate products or services with specific brands. Trademark rights can be established through registration or common law use and protection.

It is important to note that only well-known unregistered foreign marks and registered trademarks are protected under the Trade Marks Act 194 of 1993. Those that do not register trademarks will be required to rely on the common law, more specifically on passing off. Registered marks will be subject to renewal every 10 years; however, a trademark can be registered indefinitely.


Copyright safeguards original works of authorship, such as literary, artistic, musical, and dramatic creations. Copyright protection arises automatically upon the creation of an original work.

Copyright grants creators a bunch of exclusive rights, including the right to reproduce, distribute, perform, communicate with the public, and adapt. These rights empower creators to control the use and distribution of their creative works, allowing them to licence their works for commercial exploitation or prevent unauthorised use.

It is important to note that the Copyright Act 98 of 1978 further conveys moral rights to the creators of qualifying works, which provides creators with the right to be named as such and allows the creator to object to the alteration or use of their works in circumstances that are prejudicial to their reputation.

In South Africa, copyright usually expires after a period of at least 50 years from a certain event, depending on the nature of the work and the author.


Patents protect inventions, granting inventors exclusive rights to their creations for a limited period of time. In South Africa, this period is 20 years. To qualify for patent protection, an invention must be novel, inventive, and capable of industrial application. Patents encourage innovation by providing inventors with incentives to disclose their inventions to the public in exchange for exclusive rights.


Design rights protect the visual appeal or functional aspects of products, covering everything from shapes to patterns. Design rights prevent unauthorised use for a fixed period; in South Africa, a functional design is protected for 10 years, while an aesthetic design is protected for a period of 15 years.

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets are an intangible asset that a company can use to protect its competitive advantage. While patents and trademarks provide legal protection for specific inventions or creations, trade secrets can protect a wider range of information that gives a company a competitive edge.

Although not protected by specific laws in South Africa, trade secrets rely on rigorous common law criteria, including confidentiality, limited access, and economic value, to qualify for protection.

Trade secrets in South Africa only qualify for protection when they are capable of being applied in trade or industry, have the necessary quality of confidentiality, are only known to a restricted number of persons, and lastly, have economic value to the proprietor. Effective measures must be in place to secure and maintain this confidentiality.

The Strategic Value of IP

By understanding the different types of IP and their significance, creators, innovators, and businesses can effectively protect their ideas, inventions, brands, and creative works. Whether through trademarks, copyrights, patents, trade secrets, or designs, effectively leveraging IP assets empowers businesses and creators alike. It ensures that innovations, brands, and creative endeavours are not only recognised but protected, driving progress across industries.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.