Wayne Beynon, Intellectual Property Lawyer at Cardiff and London based firm Capital Law, looks at how UK businesses and individuals can protect some of their most valuable assets: their intellectual property.
Intellectual property, put simply, is the product of original thought and endeavour. It’s what sets your business apart from your competition. And, if you’re innovative or have a strong brand, IP can generate significant income, and increase how much your business is worth.
But, the difficulty can be knowing where to start – particularly if you’re a start-up or SME. Understanding what IP is – and how it’s valuable to you – is really important, and it all starts with getting the basics right.
People often get confused between the different ways that you can protect your IP: trademarks, copyrights, designs and patents. An easy way to think of it is that trademarks help define and protect unique aspects of your business’ brand, like your name, logo or strapline – whereas copyright and patents apply to things that you’ve created, like written or artistic materials (copyright) or new product inventions (patents).
It is vitally important that businesses take steps to protect their brand(s) by registering trade marks in the countries where they offer their products or services. Once registered, trademarks enable you to prevent other businesses from using the same, or similar, brand features. Without them, your business is at risk of others imitating your brand and effectively stealing your goodwill. In the UK, IP rights, including trademarks, are registered with the Intellectual Property Office (IPO).
It will consider registering words (e.g. “NIKE”), logos (e.g. “[INSERT SWOOSH]”), straplines (e.g. “Just Do It”) and even designs, colours, and shapes as trademarks. The key requirement is that the trade mark is capable of identifying a brand.
There are several key things to think about before you take apply for a trade mark.
First, make sure that nobody else has got there first. Some quick google searching is a good place to start with these checks, but it’s always a good idea to get professional advice, too. An IP lawyer can search the right trade mark registers for conflicting marks, before you pay for the application fee.
Think about how recognisable your intended trademark is, too. The IPO will refuse to register anything that isn’t easily identifiable to the public, or words that simply describe the goods or services you’re offering. They also won’t accept applications that contain offensive material, promote illegal activities, or mislead the public in any way.
Think about how valuable it is by considering the consequences for you if a competing business started using key elements of your brand without your permission. Without a trade mark, there’s nothing to stop them doing this. For a small business, securing trade mark protection could both offer you peace of mind, and enhance your business’ value.
Copyright law is a totally different concept. It protects your original written, artistic and musical creations.
Ultimately, copyrights enable you to stop others from using or copying your work without your permission. Unlike trademarks, you don’t need to apply to register your copyright work in the UK because, by law, copyright protection will apply to your work as soon as you’ve created it.
It’s particularly common for businesses to find that people or competing businesses copy and use content from their website. One way to put people off doing that is to use copyright notices – including the familiar © – to warn others that your content is copyright protected. Remember, though, that while the © is a red flag to others looking to steal your material, it in itself doesn’t actually give your work any extra protection than what you’ve already got under copyright law.
If you do find that someone is infringing your copyright, you’ll need to speak to an IP lawyer to get them to stop – and potentially receive compensation.
Patents protect inventions. If you’re successfully granted a patent, you’ll have the exclusive rights to make, and sell products that incorporate your patented invention for a period of 20 years. So, if, for example, you created a specific type of cog applicable to lots of different watches and clocks, and you successfully patented it, you’d be the only person or business able to use it for the next 20 years. In a pharmaceutical context, it is the main reason why new drugs tend to become far more affordable after they’ve been on the market for 20 years i.e. once the patent on the drug expires, it’s open season for others to copy and mass produce it.
Securing patent protection can be lengthy and complex though – as well as costly. More often than not, the major hurdle that you’ll have to jump during the application process is demonstrating that your invention is actually new. Once you’ve got a patent, though, it can be invaluable to your business – particularly if it’s an innovative invention that puts you ahead of your competitors.
You need to remember that, unlike other business-related issues, like insurance renewals or tax returns, no one will check in to remind you about your intellectual property. There’ll be no reminders to check that it’s protected – and nobody to let you know if anyone infringes your intellectual property. That’s why it’s so important for businesses to get specialist IP advice as soon as possible – even if you’re only looking to get a trade mark to secure your brand.
Wayne Beynon is an intellectual property lawyer at Cardiff and London based firm, Capital Law www.capital-law.co.uk