Protecting Your Intellectual Property

Articles

Many businesses underestimate the value of their intellectual property, and do not protect themselves when outsourcing or working with others.

What?

Intellectual property is any creation of the mind, such as an invention, literature, art, and also symbols, names, images and designs used in commerce.

Businesses often do not appreciate the value or the significance of their intellectual property, and therefore do not exploit their rights.

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Why?

A business or individual should protect their intellectual property to protect an idea, design, work or brand.

Often businesses believe they are covered by registering their name with Companies House, or as a domain, where this is not the case.

Protecting your intellectual property helps protect your use of a brand name or invention, promotes confidentiality, and can even protect you against counterfeiting.


When?

You may wish to set up a patent for an invention before you start using it or manufacturing it, or a trademark for your business name.

Consider intellectual property when you have new ideas, develop products, start your business, choose new manufacturers, outsource, promote yourself, seek investment, license your work to others, conduct confidential business or set up partnerships. Even consider it when you create your website.


How?

There are several ways to protect and establish intellectual property:

  • Patents
  • Trademarks
  • Registered Designs
  • Copyright

Patents are used to protect technological innovation and inventions and require very precise applications and secrecy. They are tricky to establish, as the invention must not be known anywhere in the world, and must have an 'inventive step'. They must also be industrially applicable, and have technical effect.

The hardest part for some people with a patent is that you cannot tell anyone about the item you wish to patent! Once a patent has been established, you can license your invention to be manufactured by others while retaining the rights.

Trademarks are very simple to establish, though they have rules relating to what can and cannot be trademarked. Roughly defined, a trademark is any sign capable of being represented graphically that is distinguishing.

A trademark gives you exclusive use of a word, logo, slogan, colour (such as the yellow of AA vans), shape (Toblerone triangle), music or non-traditional element, such as the ASDA pocket tap. If that trademark is filed with customs, it can help to detect counterfeiting. You can also license the use of your trademark.


Trademarks are often:

  • Totally invented words
  • 4-8 letters long
  • No meaning in any language

Bad things to attempt to trademark are:

  • Geographical references
  • Laudatory terms (brilliant, the best etc)
  • Restrictive names (window cleaners - stops you branching out into any other industry)

Registered designs are for product look or shapes, and the rights retained for the design. This helps protect you if you outsource your manufacturing. Examples include the iPhone's look. Designs cannot be registered on shapes created to perform a function, such as the teeth of keys, but the fob they are attached to can be.

Copyright is automatic, and covers many artistic creations. It is often linked to author lifetime (+70 years for books, paintings, music, drama and websites, +50 years for television and sound).

It is very important to check who owns the copyright of your publications, art, website content etc, as often it will be the first creator, the author or their employer. Contracts should be checked thoroughly to ensure the intellectual property moves into the possession of the company it is created for. Legal advice over copyright is suggested, as the creators may also retain moral rights.

Copyright can be harder to enforce than the previous three categories. Copyright should not be relied upon if you wish to protect your commercial rights efficiently.

Further detail of each can be found on the Intellectual Property Office website.

In day to day dealings with other companies, particularly during tendering or outsourcing, it is worth considering Non-Disclosure Agreements to ensure your work is kept confidential. If you outsource any design or creativity, ensure that those individuals or companies have agreed to sign over the intellectual property of their work.

Where?

The first place to start if you want to find out about protecting your intellectual property is the Intellectual Property Office, formerly the Patents Office.

It is possible to file a UK trademark application via the website, and view in depth information. The Office also have a search to check for similar intellectual property to help inform you before making an application.

A trademark in particular costs surprisingly little to achieve. A standard application is only £170 (at time of writing) and lasts for 10 years. There are other types of trademarks, such as Community Trademarks that you can consider.

Designs cost even less, £60 for 5 years, and again a Community Design can be applied for if you seek specialist advice.

The IPO will also advise you on international applications. For trademarks, UK businesses can make use of the Madrid Protocol which simplifies the application of a trademark in many countries signed up with to the Protocol, and you also benefit from the advice of the IPO who look through your international application before sending it to the relevant offices for you.

Patents and more complicated intellectual property may require legal advice to be sure you are well protected and that once you have a patent, trademark or design you can protect it from others using it without license.