It doesn’t matter if you’re a startup business or a corporation, one of the most important assets for any company is their Intellectual Property.
Indeed, these ‘concepts’ or ‘ideas,’ as long as they are protected, are often crucial to the longer-term viability of a company. Unprotected, the products, services, logos, corporate identity and processes can all be used without permission.
Some businesses, even now, don’t have proper protection in this regard, but it is entirely necessary if you wish to safeguard the future and value of the company.
What is Intellectual Property?
The term Intellectual property or ‘IP’ covers almost every unique creation.
From content to software, logos to inventions, novels to designs… and eveything in between.
Copyright, Trademarks, Patents and Designs are the four main categories of IP rights.
Why should I protect my intellectual property?
In general terms, the simple answer to the question is because you don’t want another business copying part or whole of that which makes your business unique.
If you have a strong brand awareness but no IP protection, then elements can easily be copied which then dilutes the strength of the brand.
Loss of market share would almost certainly follow as a consequence.
Further, if you happen to be an individual with a great idea or invention, but fail to make use of your Intellectual Property, the same will be copied and any profitability that would otherwise have been a given, is eliminated.
Who owns the IP?
As an individual, if your concept/idea is unique, it is, by definition, instantly recognisable as being yours, and the IP will be yours alone.
Things are a more complicated from a business standpoint, in that if you are employed, the law falls on the side of the employer in terms of having ownership of the IP, unless there happens to be an employment contract in place which suggests that not to be the case.
Carrying out an intellectual property audit
If you wish to ensure that your concept/idea has IP protection, it is imperative that an audit is carried out.
In order to arrange the protection, what must be known prior to said arrangement is the IP’s value, where is it used within a company and are there any current owners.
The IP should cover a wide ranging portfolio (written materials, brands, domain names etc), so if there are any grey areas before the process is fully underway, be sure to speak to others in the organisation for clarity.
Patents – protecting inventions
The Intellectual Property Office will grant patents to exclusively protect inventions for a pre-determined period of time.
It’s worth taking time to do a patent search at the outset as you’ll not be able to have a patent granted if someone has beaten you to the punch.
If there’s a belief that someone else is taking advantage of your IP, as long as there is a patent on your invention, successful litigation is a formality.
Trademarks – protecting concepts and ideas
The Intellectual Property Office is also where you would register a trademark.
These are used to ensure that various aspects of the business – for example, brand names or slogans – which would be distinctive and representative of the company, are covered.
Although litigation could be the road to go down even if a trademark hasn’t been applied for, there needs to be proof that goodwill and trading reputation have been built up in order for the IPO to find in your favour and either grant you/your business the trademark or ensure that no other is allowed to use it.
Design right and registered designs – three dimensional objects
The protection for design right and registered design is limited but automatic for the appearance of three dimensional objects.
If the design is registered, this allows an extension to ensure cover on two dimensional objects, and also widens the degree of protection.
Copyright – original works
Software, paintings, sound recordings… all of this and more, which could be said to be part of a creative process or artistic/intellectual effort, would be covered under copyright protectection.
It doesn’t need to be applied for, and in the UK (but not the US) copyright protection remains automatic.
1. List all your IP assets
The Intellectual Property Office have a free IP Healthcheck tool in order that you can keep track of any IP that you own.
For any and all IP (patents, copyrights and designs, trademarks), it’s important that a process is in place, and known about, to ensure that all IP can be accounted for.
2. Check that your IP idea is original
As this can be a legal minefield, it’s worth paying for the use of a solicitor who is experienced in this area of law.
You need to ensure a thorough search of all trademarks, patents and copyrights to establish whether your concept/idea is original or not.
Work on the basis that if your idea is a good one, someone, somewhere, will want to copy it.
As long as you’ve done your homework, no one else will be able to profit, without your express consent.
Remember too that IP protection covers individuals right up to corporations.
3. Record the evidence of IP development
If there are drawings or drafts of your concept/idea, make sure that these are signed and dated, and keep a detailed log which evidences your IP development of your IP.
4. Prevent IP theft through contracts
Any and all IP development must have the ownwership clearly stated, whether by employment or consultancy contract.
5. Seek advice if you are unsure you are protected
It’s always worth taking advice to make sure you are protected properly.
To do so, look for a patent agent at: Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys
Or a trademark agent at: Chartered Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys.
6. Protect your IP early
Registration takes time – typically 2-4 years for a UK patent. If you want to ensure waiting time is reduced to under a year in some cases, ensure that the IPO has given your intellectual property a positive examination report.
As long as your concept/idea/invention offers some type of environmental benefit, a trade mark can be registered in six months, typically.
7. Guard against IP infringement online
Take regular action against online IP infringement by using internet seatches to see if your logos, images or otherwise are being passed off without your permission.
A perfect example would be posting content which someone effectively steals to then pass off as their own.
Ownership and copyright notices generally do the trick in these instances, but you should be prepared to take things further if necessary.
8. Protect your IP outside the UK
Protecting IP abroad is necessary if your concept/idea/product is for and of use internationally.
As IP protection is territorial, that means it’s only applicable in some regions or countries.
Separate design registration, international patents and trade marks will be required, however, it’s often straightforward and you certainly shouldn’t be put off of doing this.
9. Keep an eye out for IP scams
That’s because plenty of scammers and fraudsters will look to take advantage, and this route will ultimately end with legal action.
Remember that in order to ensure that your IP is protected, it is your responsibility to be certain that no IP infringement has occurred.
As a new company, losing the market share because of lack of IP protection, could slow the growth of the company or, at worst, put them out of business.
It isn’t difficult to protect your IP, and it’s worth putting in the time at the outset to save grief later.