Malcolm ZoppiWed Dec 27 2023

What is the First to Register Principle in UK Trademarks? Understanding Intellectual Property Rights

In the United Kingdom, the principle of ‘first to register’ underpins the trade mark registration system. This principle denotes that the first person to register a specific trade mark is granted exclusive rights to it, which is critical for protecting a brand’s identity. Registration not only confers legal ownership but also enables the owner to […]

In the United Kingdom, the principle of ‘first to register’ underpins the trade mark registration system. This principle denotes that the first person to register a specific trade mark is granted exclusive rights to it, which is critical for protecting a brand’s identity. Registration not only confers legal ownership but also enables the owner to take action against others who may use the same or a confusingly similar mark for comparable goods or services. This is particularly important given that trade marks are a key element in differentiating products and services in the marketplace.

The ‘first to register’ system is also used in other countries including China. This is in contrast to the ‘first to use’ trademark system, as adopted in the USA (amongst other countries). The UK has made a conscious decision to adopt the ‘first to register’ system. 

Understanding the importance of registering your trade mark promptly cannot be overstated, as it establishes a public record of your rights and can serve as a significant deterrent to potential infringers. In the event that your trade mark rights are challenged, being the first to register can be a decisive factor in legal proceedings. The registration process involves examining whether your mark is distinctive enough and not similar to earlier rights, which helps maintain the clarity and fairness of the trade mark system.

Key Takeaways

  • Registering a trade mark first in the UK secures exclusive rights to use it.
  • Prompt registration provides legal advantages and protection against infringement.
  • The registration process ensures the distinctiveness and non-conflict with existing marks.

Understanding Trade Marks

In the realm of business and commerce, trade marks serve as an essential mechanism for protecting your brand’s identity and differentiating your products and services in the marketplace.

Definition of a Trade Mark

A trade mark is a distinctive sign that identifies certain goods or services as those produced or provided by a specific person or enterprise. Under the Trade Marks Act 1994, a trade mark can be a word, logo, symbol, name, phrase, shape, colour, sound, or signature—just to name a few. It ensures that consumers can distinguish between different offerings by helping to avoid confusion. To be registrable, a trade mark must be capable of graphical representation and must not be descriptive or misleading.

Types of Trade Marks

There are various types of trade marks that you can register, and selecting the right one is crucial for protection:

  • Product Marks: Specific to goods.
  • Service Marks: Used to distinguish services.
  • Collective Marks: Indicate goods or services that come from members of a trade association.
  • Certification Marks: Show that the goods or services meet a certain standard.

A registered trade mark can include three-dimensional shapes and even distinctive designs. 

First to Register Principle

When navigating trademark registration in the UK, you engage with what’s known as the “first to register” principle. This rule plays a crucial role in trademark law, establishing the priority of rights based on who files for registration first.

  • Intellectual Property Office: It is the authoritative body where you file your trademark application.
  • Registration: Securing a spot on the Official UK Trademark Register.
  • Ownership: Established upon successful registration.

Here’s how it affects you:

  • Claim to Ownership: If you’re the first to register your trademark, you gain the exclusive rights to it.
  • Exclusive Right: This implies you can use the mark, and legally prevent others from using identical or confusingly similar marks for related goods or services.
  • Legal Precedence: Should disputes arise, registration offers robust evidence of your ownership from the registration date.


  • The first to register principle trumps use in trade. Even if you’ve used a mark first, if someone else registers it before you, they may gain the legal upper hand.
  • Priority of rights can be complex and intersect with other legal principles.

Before taking action, ensure your mark is distinctive and non-descriptive to improve your chances of securing trademark registration successfully. Acting promptly to file your application with the Intellectual Property Office can cement your ownership and protect your brand’s integrity.

Accordingly, following the first to register principle, it is theoretically legal to register the trademark that another business is using.

Trademark Registration Process

The Trademark Registration Process in the UK involves several meticulous steps that ensure your trade mark is protected. Navigating the process with precision is crucial for securing your brand’s identity.

Searching for Existing Trade Marks

Before you file an application, conduct a thorough search for existing trade marks that may be identical or similar to yours. This will minimise the likelihood of confusion and objections based on earlier rights. The UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) provides a search service, and you can also utilise the resources. Remember, searching in relevant classes based on the Nice Classification is fundamental to ascertain the distinctiveness of your mark.

Filing a Trade Mark Application

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Your application process begins with filing a form at the UKIPO. Identify the name, goods, and services you want to trademark, ensuring they fall within the correct classes. Registration fees start at £170 for one class. It’s crucial to file a precise and accurate application, as errors can lead to objections. Details on the application process are available on

Examination by UK Intellectual Property Office

After submission, the UKIPO examines your application for issues such as registrability, compliance with public policy and morality, and ensuring it’s not deceptive, misleading, descriptive, or generic. A mark must have acquired distinctiveness and not be deemed non-distinctive. If there are no absolute grounds for objection, your application advances.

Publication in the Trade Marks Journal

If the examination process is successful, your application will be published in the Trade Marks Journal. This publication allows third parties to view your application and oppose it if they believe it infringes on their own rights or is otherwise problematic. The opposition period lasts for two months, extendable by one month.

Registration and Certificate Issuance

Upon successful completion of the above steps without any opposition, or following resolution of any issues, the UKIPO will register your trade mark. You will receive a certificate of registration that grants you the exclusive right to use the trade mark in the UK concerning the goods and services listed in your application. This certificate is a legal document that serves as proof of ownership and the protections afforded to your trade mark.

Protection and Enforcement

When you register a trade mark in the UK, you gain formidable legal backing for your brand that covers a spectrum of protections and enforcement mechanisms designed to mitigate infringement. This grants you the capacity to not only protect your intellectual property but also to take decisive action against unauthorised use by others.

Scope of Trade Mark Protection

By registering your trade mark, you secure an exclusive right to use it for the goods and services outlined in your registration. It functions as an indicator of the origin and quality of your products, safeguarding the reputation and goodwill associated with your brand. This exclusivity extends to deterring others from using identical or confusingly similar marks that could create a likelihood of confusion in the market.

Opposing a Trade Mark

If you believe a pending trade mark application infringes on your rights, you may want to oppose it. This involves filing formal objections with the Intellectual Property Office, typically on the grounds that the applied mark is identical or similar to yours and applied for in relation to similar goods or services, raising the risk of public confusion. If you do not oppose the trade mark application, you may be deemed to have accepted the application. This is similar to the marriage concept – “speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Trade Mark Infringement

Infringement occurs when an unauthorised entity uses a mark that is identical or confusingly similar to yours for goods or services that fall within the category of the trademark’s classes. If your trade mark is registered, you can act against such infringements. 

Legal Remedies and Litigation

The UK legal system provides several legal remedies for trade mark infringement. Through court action, you can pursue injunctions to prevent further use of the infringing mark and claim damages for any losses incurred. Beyond statutory rights, the common law tort of passing off can help protect unregistered marks if you can demonstrate established goodwill and mistaken identity by the public. For deeper insights into protecting your brand and enforcing your trade mark, you may consider reviewing guidance on enforcing a trade mark. This empowers you to defend your brand and pursue litigation when necessary to uphold your trade mark rights.

Managing Trade Marks

Once your trade mark is registered, effective management is crucial to maintain the protection of your brand. You are responsible for renewals and for keeping the registration details up to date to ensure your brand remains safeguarded.

Renewing a Trade Mark

Your registered trade mark is valid for 10 years from the date of registration and can be renewed indefinitely for subsequent 10-year periods. You should start the renewal process before the expiry date, although there is a grace period of six months with additional fees. To renew, you must submit a request and pay the applicable costs, which can be done online. Failing to renew on time can lead to the trade mark being removed from the register, potentially leaving your brand unprotected.

Amending Register Details

It is important to keep the register details of your trade mark accurate and updated. Changes such as a new owner name or a change in address must be officially amended with the Intellectual Property Office. Bear in mind that while you can easily change address details, amending the registration with regard to the goods or services the trade mark applies to may be more complex and might require additional costs or a new application. Always ensure that your trade mark reflects the current state of your business operations to avoid legal complexities or loopholes that can be exploited by competitors.

Global Considerations

When you navigate the complexities of trade mark registration on a global scale, you must adapt to different systems and regulations. Certain principles, such as the ‘first to register’, hold varying levels of significance across international boundaries. Here, it’s essential to consider both the international frameworks in place and specific continental nuances.

International Trade Mark Systems

The Madrid Protocol offers a streamlined process for registering a trade mark in multiple countries through a single application. It essentially allows trade mark owners to apply for protection in any of the member countries, which may impact your decision-making about where and when to register. This system simplifies the management of your trade mark portfolio across different geographic locations, making it a cornerstone of international trade mark law, especially for businesses operating overseas.

It’s vital to understand that despite the convenience, each participating country will still apply its domestic trade mark laws. Therefore, your UK-registered trade mark under the ‘first to register’ principle may not automatically equate to the same priority or protection in another jurisdiction.

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European Union Trade Marks

An EU Trade Mark (EUTM) offers protection across all member states of the European Union with just one application. Although the UK’s relationship with the EU has changed post-Brexit, the EUTM still exists as a powerful tool for those seeking to safeguard their brand within the EU market.

Utilising an EUTM means acknowledging continental considerations; you must comply with EU trade mark laws that are harmonised across the member states. This uniform approach contrasts with the UK’s system and can bear implications for your UK registrations, especially if you have not secured your rights in the EU.

Remember, your trade mark strategy should be tailored to your business’s scope of operation and future goals in both regions. Your careful attention to these systems will help ensure robust brand protection in the ever-evolving trade mark landscape.

Prohibited and Restricted Content

In the realm of UK trademarks, certain content is categorically barred from registration, while other types might be restricted based on specific conditions. This ensures that trademarks adhere to public policy and do not infringe on morality.

Absolute Grounds for Refusal

Trademarks in the UK may be refused registration on absolute grounds if they contain:

  • Official symbols and emblems protected under the Paris Convention, such as national flags or government badges, without authorisation.
  • Signs that are deceptive, or could mislead the public, including incorrect indications of the nature, quality, or geographical origin of goods or services.
  • Marks that are contrary to public policy or accepted principles of morality. This includes offensive terms, imagery, or symbols that could incite violence or hatred.

On the topic of morality and public policy, it is crucial for you to recognise that a direct depiction or reference to sensitive social and cultural issues might be deemed inappropriate.

Other Restrictions on Registrability

When considering the registrability of a trademark, other restrictions may apply, such as:

  • Royal insignia, unless you have obtained permission from the relevant authority, as use of these symbols can imply royal endorsement or a connection with the monarchy.
  • Marks that are generic, non-distinctive, or broadly descriptive of the goods or services they aim to represent, which means generic colours may be refused unless they have acquired distinctiveness through use.
  • Trademarks which include or resemble offensive content, whether in imagery, words, or implications, are firmly restricted.

Under these provisions, it’s key to understand that the context and use of colours, emblems, and symbols within your trademark largely influence its acceptability.

Frequently Asked Questions

In the UK, the ‘first to register’ principle is integral to protecting your trademark and consequently your brand. Understanding this and related processes can give you a critical advantage when establishing and enforcing your rights.

How does the first-to-register system impact trademark rights in the United Kingdom?

The ‘first-to-register‘ system in the UK means that the first person to register a trademark has priority over others in securing trademark rights. This registration grants you legal exclusivity to use the mark on the goods and services listed in your application.

What are the steps involved in registering a trademark under the UK Trade Marks Act 1994?

To register a trademark under the UK Trade Marks Act 1994, you must file an application with the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), ensuring your mark is unique and suitable for registration. After examination and potential opposition, if your application meets all criteria, your trademark will be registered.

Can you explain the difference between ‘first to file’ and ‘first to use’ trademark principles as they apply to UK law?

The ‘first to file’ system, operative in the UK, awards trademark rights based on registration rather than use. Conversely, ‘first to use’ principles, seen in some other jurisdictions, can grant rights to the initial user of a trademark, regardless of registration.

What are the consequences of trademark infringement under UK law?

Trademark infringement under UK law can result in legal actions, including injunctions, damages, and potentially the seizure of infringing goods. If you infringe on a registered trademark, you may face significant repercussions.

How do trademark classes in the UK determine the scope of protection for a registered trademark?

Trademark classes in the UK delineate the categories of goods and services protected. When you register your trademark, you specify relevant classes to define the scope of protection. It is crucial to select accurate classes to ensure complete protection.

Which symbols are legally recognised to represent a registered trademark in the UK?

In the UK, the ® symbol designates a registered trademark, and it is a legal offence to use it if your trademark is not registered. The ™ symbol, however, can be used with any trademark, regardless of whether it’s registered.

Disclaimer: This document has been prepared for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal or financial advice. You should always seek independent professional advice and not rely on the content of this document as every individual circumstance is unique. Additionally, this document is not intended to prejudge the legal, financial or tax position of any person.

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