Startups, IP and the law: what you need to know

Startups, IP and the law: what you need to know

You have probably heard an unsettling story doing the rounds on the internet over the past few weeks about a tiny London startup which found itself on the wrong side of a global giant, amidst allegations of intellectual property infringement. 
Local founder David Senior became embroiled in a rather mismatched public tug of war with telecommunications corporation Nokia, over the use of the word ‘Here’ within the branding of his primary app ‘Lowdown’ and its spin off ‘HERE’. 
The whole affair has got us thinking about startups, small businesses and intellectual property; where are the lines drawn, how can we protect our work and what’s to stop any of us stumbling unwittingly into dangerous territory?
To help set the record straight, here’s a quick guide to Intellectual Property for startups and SMEs. 
What is IP? 
By its very nature, Intellectual Property (IP) is fundamentally difficult to define, since it refers to that which is conceived in the mind of a person and therefore can be thought of as their legal property. The point at which things become complex is when this intellectual property is manifested in a more tangible way, either online or in the ‘real world’, through things like artistic works, design creations, symbols, logos, names and images. As the people at Lowdown discovered, IP disputes can reach frightening levels when these things are employed in relation to commerce. 
Within the United Kingdom IP is protected by extensive laws which come from both national and European frameworks; but issues and disputes arise regularly because of unavoidable ambiguities and crossovers between different legislations. 
Complex they may be, but intellectual property rights are one of the basic foundations of modern societies and are vital for the future advancement of the human race… imagine how little innovation would occur, if we lived in a world without the right to benefit from one’s own intellectual property. 
The law
Within the IP system there exist various legal frameworks which allow official recognition of a person’s / organisation’s right to claim ownership of a particular creation or invention, these same laws also exert their right to amass financial benefit from their usage. 
Some of these IP rights require official registration in order to be recognised by law, and others are automatically applicable.  There are two main ‘categories’ of IP protection; Copyright which is automatically awarded, and Industrial Property, which includes things like trademarks, patents, geographical indications and industrial designs. 
This is the most overarching and simple form of Intellectual Property protection which bestows upon the owner of a work a number of rights and legal benefits which can prevent the unauthorised usage or exploitation of their works.  It is important to point out that the legal owner of the work is not always its creator; such as in cases where copyright has been sold to a second party.
Copyright is automatically applicable to a wide range of original works and creations, and is most usually associated with artistic creations such as literary works, drawings, logos, photographs, computer programs, sculptures, recorded music, recorded video and so forth.  A person's copyright becomes valid from the moment that a work which falls into a relevant category is created, without the need for registration or other legal process. Read more here.
Rather loosely speaking a trademark is a distinctive sign which is used to identify particular services / goods provided by a person or company.  More specifically the kinds of things that can become registered trademarks include words, phrases, numbers, logo’s, designs, 3D shapes (such as brand specific packaging).  The idea is that a person or company can express the quality, history, individuality of their work under a legally registered mark which sets their work apart from competitors and prevents others from piggy-backing on / misusing their success.  
The rules regarding what can and cannot become a registered trademark are very strict, and the granting of one depends upon a number of factors including; how distinctive it is, whether it is misleading, and whether a trademark is warranted. 
You can take a look at the ins and outs of registering a trademark, as well as all of the rules involved in the process here
Patents are considered the gold standard of IP protection and can be sought as a way of ring fencing a process or product that introduces a new / innovative way of doing something.  It is one of the most effective ways of encouraging constant innovation and improvement of products, processes, and services by ensuring that innovators are given credit for the work that they do. 
Patents are usually valid for around 20 years, during which the patent owner has full control over who can and cannot use their patented invention, product, or process commercially. Patent owners are also able to sell licenses which permit controlled usage of their patented invention, or can sell the patent to another person / organisation, forfeiting all rights to future ownership and profits.  
As you can imagine there are strict controls on what can and can't be patented, and in order for something to be considered it must be: 

  • Of practical use
  • A novelty within its existing field
  • Inventive in a way that could not be created by someone with an average understanding of the field

Patents are administered by a government body called the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), and you can find full details of the process here.  
Industrial Design Protection
Through an industrial design you can protect the aesthetic aspects of a product / work which it could be argued are unique or distinctive to your creations.  The protection covers aesthetic aspects only and takes no account of functionality or features associated with the items, some of the things that can be covered by this protection include colours, lines, 2D and 3D Shapes. 
This is a really widely used form of IP protection and is applicable to a huge range of items including household products, jewellery, clothing, food items, electronics and so forth.   It assures the person who registers the design retains exclusive rights to its usage and prevents the illegal copying or reproduction of it.
This may be a form of protection that you wish to discover more about; you can find all of the information you will need here

More generally the official government guidelines regarding intellectual property can be found at the Intellectual Property Office website.
eoin-startacus-(1).pngEoin O'Hara is a business developer and lead content writer at He has a background combining arts and culture with strategic business development, and now plays a central role in the growth of the Startacus brand., The Self Start Society, is the place for enterprising people to learn, share, connect and bring ideas to life. Follow them at @Iamstartacus  


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