Protecting your intellectual property is essential to remaining profitable. Our guide explains how you can get protection including patents, trademarks and ensuring your products are first-to-market.

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property refers to creations that come about as a result of skill, creativity, ingenuity and insight. Items that fall under the IP umbrella are often called ‘creations of the mind.’ The term intellectual property also refers to the legal practice and issues surrounding the protection and sale of these items.

The legal principles governing IP have evolved over many hundreds of years but the term itself is a relatively new creation. Intellectual property can be many different things, from logos and corporate identity through to products, services and processes that set your business apart from the rest.

Entrepreneurs and firms take steps to protect their intellectual property because it often forms a significant part of their competitive advantage. There are several ways to protect intellectual property; the one you use depends on the type of creation you want to protect.

Why use intellectual property?

Many economists believe intellectual property contributes significantly to economic growth, with the wealth and capacity of many of the world’s largest companies directly traceable to their intangible assets (brand names, slogans, etc). Intellectual property law allows owners of IP to benefit from their own creations.

For many businesses intellectual property protection is necessary to maintain a competitive advantage and to prevent other firms from copying their ideas. Patents, which cover inventions, are often applied for because the returns can help pay for research and development costs.

Why should I protect my intellectual property?

Many of the things that can be protected under intellectual property rights have essential roles to play in the success of your business. Strong brands are often crucial to retaining loyal clients; if your brand is easily copied its strength is diluted and you may lose customers. Likewise, a good invention is often profitable because it solves problems in a way others do not. If it’s easily copied, then other businesses can eliminate your competitive advantage.

How do I protect my intellectual property?

Different solutions exist depending on what needs to be protected:

  • Patents

Cover inventions, and for UK applicants, are granted for a set period of time by the Intellectual Property Office. Inventions are protected exclusively by patents and these are granted only for inventions that are not currently under patent in any way – conduct a patent search to find out if someone’s got there before you. Once your invention has been patented it is relatively easy to litigate against a third party that you feel is unfairly using your intellectual property.

  • Trademarks

Cover the unique or distinctive way you represent certain aspects of your business, such as slogans and brand names. In theory, legal action can be taken without applying for a trademark, but you must prove that the disputed asset has been used by you to build sufficient trading reputation and goodwill. Search for an existing trademark here.

  • Copyright and Design right

Covers original literary creations and 3D models respectively. Both are automatically granted in the UK to original literary creations but must be applied for in other countries. This protection is limited; registering the design widens the degree of protection and extends it to cover two dimensional objects. Copyright protection is automatic (in the UK, but not in the US) and does not need to be applied for, it is given to all original literary or artistic creations that are the result of intellectual effort, skill or creative prowess. This would include website content, instruction manuals and paintings as well as sound recordings and software.

How do I know what intellectual property I have?

Entrepreneurs and businesses should identify and value their assets in order to understand what is worth protecting. This is easier for tangible assets (physical objects such as machinery) than for intangible assets, as it’s very difficult to put a market price on brand names or logos.

Carrying out an intellectual property audit

You must carry out an audit before you can pursue intellectual property protection. Identify where IP is used within your organisation, who currently owns the IP rights (if any) and assess the IP values. You’ll need this information when arranging protection. If you’re unsure, ask a business acquaintance for help as audits should not only take into account more obvious forms of IP, such as brands and headlines, but also domain names, written materials and other valuable assets.

Intellectual property protection in other countries

Don’t assume that because your IP is protected in the UK it will be protected abroad. IP protection is territorial; usually only applicable to a specified region or country. Many countries have similar IP laws to the UK and applying for IP protection abroad is often straightforward. Speak to a qualified lawyer for more information.

Getting professional advice

Patent attorneys specialise in all aspects of intellectual property protection, not just patents, and can provide legal advice to your business. Make sure your lawyer is registered and regulated by the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA). Alternatively contact a trademark lawyer, regulated by the Institute of Trademark Attorneys (ITMA). The Intellectual Property Office can also provide advice.

Intellectual property law is complex. It is often worth getting advice from a professional before applying for protection. Patent attorneys specialise in intellectual property law, as do trademark attorneys. They are governed and regulated by the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) and the Institute of Trademark Attorneys (ITMA) respectively. More general advice can be gained from the Intellectual Property Office. The British Library Business and Intellectual Property Centre (BIPC) has numerous articles on how to protect your ideas too.

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