Each and every product and service that we use in our daily lives is the result of a series of designs and innovations that make it look and function the way it does. These original ideas and creations are called intellectual property, and are eligible to be protected by the law.
Regardless of the product or service your SME provides, it’s likely that it’s regularly creating and using a great deal of intellectual property. This is why it’s so important to understand and implement the necessary steps for protecting and enforcing it.
Intellectual property (IP) should be a business’s priority right from day one, as a failure to protect yourself can lead to lengthy and expensive legal battles later on. Even before you put your business plan to an investor, they’ll ask you whether or not the relevant patent or trademarks are in place for your product. Before you even put plans for your start-up in motion, you should consider a few things.
- Are you free to use the idea and name? Check for existing patents, designs, trademarks and domain names.
- Are your IP rights secured? File for patents, designs, trademarks and domain names.
- Have you checked your contract terms with third parties? For example, confidentiality and ownership agreements.
Ensuring your business has a well-balanced IP portfolio can increase your market value and give you a competitive edge. Commercialisation of your products or services can help to generate income for your SME.
To help you understand whether or not your IP rights are fully protected, and help to ensure you aren’t violating anyone else’s, we’ve come up with an overview of the most important terms.
A patent is a government authority or license which protects a certain invention, whether a product or a process, and stops someone else from making, using or selling it.
A patent can only be granted for a product that is original and has a practical use. If you believe your idea or product meets the relevant requirement, the application process for a patent can be long and drawn out, but a patent can be a highly valuable asset as it gives the owner a monopoly on the invention for 20 years.
A trademark legally protects a brand name, symbol or word as being representative of a particular company or product. Trademarks use ® if registered and ™ if not.
Almost every SME has a trade name or trademarks that they should consider protecting. A trademark gives the owner an exclusive right to use that name or logo in the context of their own brand.
The name or mark must be distinctive and cannot simply be a description of the product or service it represents. It also needs to be sufficiently different from another name in the same market to avoid confusion and potential legal difficulties.
A copyright is an exclusive legal right (given to the originator for a fixed number of years) that protects your literary, artistic or musical material.
Although typically associated with protecting artistic works, copyright can also cover website layout, software code and databases among other things. There is no need to register copyright as the right simply comes into being when the work is created (see the Government’s official guide here). Although easy to obtain, copyright is another valuable asset which can last for decades.
Registered design rights
Design rights give a company the opportunity to register the shape and configuration of a 3D design.
Unlike copyright, there is a test of the design’s merit which must be overcome. It must be new and original with an individual character, and if these requirements are met then the owner gets a 25-year exclusivity in respect of the design.
Confidential information is a law that protects information that is received in confidence, whether expressly or implied, from being disclosed to others without the consent of the discloser.
While this isn’t an intellectual property right as such, a SME’s business information may be protected by this law if its availability to the public is limited.
No matter which sector a SME or start-up operates in, it will need to assess its intellectual property from the outset so that it can put suitable protection in place against the exploitation of your work, and avoid costly disputes later on.
For all businesses, regular reviews of your IP status is advised, and should always be considered when looking to move into new markets or countries where you may not have protection.
For more information on intellectual property, visit this page.