Knowing how to protect your business is a key to success. The value of your idea is often much higher than you think, and is often more important than your physical assets.
Luckily, there are lots of ways of protecting an idea or concept. Lots of people hear the words intellectual property and dismiss it as being unimportant or too expensive, but it’s actually a lot easier and more vital to your business success than you might realise.
When you’re naming your business, it’s always a great idea to do a search to see whether there’s already a business in your sector with that name. If you set yourself up and start trading with a name that someone else is already using, you can be infringing on their rights and can be issued with a cease and desist letter. That would be a lot of hard work and money down the drain, so it’s best to check your market before you start.
What are your assets?
You might think you don’t have any property that you need to protect, but that’s likely not true. What seems unimportant today could be worth lots of money later down the line and you need to know how to protect your assets.
You can use the free online IP Health Check tool to find out what your assets are and to learn about the next steps for protecting them.
A patent protects your invention and lets you take legal action against anyone who uses, sells or imports your invention without your permission. It doesn’t keep your invention a secret, you have to share how you create it to the public. When your patent expires, other people would then be able to recreate your invention. Don’t go public before you have your patent, or you might struggle to get one.
A patent can be used to protect inventions and innovations like: machines, industrial processes, pharmaceuticals, your productive methods, computer hardware, electrical appliances, and biological products and processes.
You can’t use a patent for anything literary or dramatic, musical or artistic, or a scientific or mathematical discovery. Those are protected by copyright. A patent protects your inventions.
Applying for a patent can be tricky, but it’s worth the effort. You should speak to a patent attorney before you start your application because one mistake early on can’t be corrected later and can harm your chances of getting your patent. Lots of attorneys offer initial advice for free, so make sure you have some questions ready to make the most of this time.
Patents can last for 20 years, as long as you keep on top of the renewal fees. You can apply for your patent here. If you apply online, your patent will cost £230, or if you apply by post it’ll go up to £280. It might seem a lot up front, but if you consider how much to stand to make from your invention, it’s definitely worth it.
A trade mark distinguishes the goods and services of one business from another. Many people think of their trade mark as their brand. Your brand is your promise to your customer about the quality of products or services they’ll receive from you. Intellectual property rights provide legal protection for some of the most important aspects of the brand.
A trade mark can protect a word, a phrase or a logo and can even be a shape, colour, sound, or aspect of packaging. You can use your trade mark as a marketing tool so that customers can recognise your products or services.
Registering your trade mark can:
- Put people off using your ideas without permission
- Make it easier for you to take legal action if someone uses your ideas
- Allow Trading Standards Officers and the police to bring criminal charges against people who use you trade mark
- Let you sell or franchise your property
Find out more about trade marks here. Registering your trade mark will only set you back £200.
Copyright exists to give you complete control over your creative work. In intellectual property terms, creative work covers: literature, art, music, dramatic work, sound recordings, photographs, software, databases, films, radio and television broadcasts. It will protect your actual piece, but not the idea behind it, so if someone sees it and recreates it themselves, they won’t be breaching copyright law.
Copyright exists automatically when something is written down or recorded in the UK and there is no formal registration. It’s always a good idea to put the copy right mark at the end of your work followed by your name and the year so that people know you’ve claimed your work. It should look something like this: © John Smith 2017.
If you’ve commissioned someone to create a piece of work for you to use in your business, make sure you discuss beforehand who the copyright belongs to; you or the creator.
Don’t use other people’s copyrighted material without their permission. They will be able to take legal action against you.
Design for appearance
You can protect the unique way that your product looks. There are two types of protection you could look into: registered design and unregistered design. An unregistered design is automatic and you don’t have to apply for it, but it can be much harder for you to prove the design was yours if someone else uses it.
A registered design is one that you apply for. To qualify, you design must have an individual shape, configuration, pattern or ornamentation. Your design protection looks after how your product looks, whereas your patent protects your creation process.
In your application, you’ll need to include images of your designs that are identical to the product you’re selling. It should take about 4 weeks for your design protection to be registered once you’ve applied and paid for it.
The cost of protecting your design varies depending on how many different designs you want to protect.
If you’re considering selling in another country as part of your business plan, make sure you protect your assets abroad. UK protection doesn’t always transfer into global markets, so people overseas could use your ideas and designs without infringing your rights.
Find out whether the country you want to trade in accepts UK protection and learn about the issues you could encounter with your intellectual property abroad here. There is also lots of advice on how to tackle the potential problems. Check out the guides here.
The Intellectual Property Office is the best place for you to go when thinking about protecting your business. They have loads of great resources and lots of their advice is free.
You can attend their free events and workshops to learn all about your rights.
Their Youtube channel is full of really useful short videos which explain the basics.