Protecting Your Intellectual Property
Intellectual property is the legal term used to describe the results of creative endeavour. Such intellectual property – product designs, inventions, brand names and so on – typically has commercial value, and you must take steps to protect it.
There is a well-known saying “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”. Suppose you did build a better mousetrap – one that was cheaper or smaller or more effective than anything that had gone before. If you wanted to sell it, what is to stop someone else copying your idea and undercutting you?
The answer is a patent. By registering a product’s design at the patent office, the patent-holder is rewarded with a fixed period of time in which nobody else is allowed to copy the design without permission. After this time elapses, the discovery is released into the public domain and becomes a free-for-all.
A patent must typically apply to something physical and truly innovative, although some jurisdictions are more broad in their approach. The United States, for example, allows patents for business processes and software applications, whereas the UK Intellectual Property Office (formerly The Patent Office) does not.
The holder of a patent is not obliged to actually use the patent, but they have prevented others from doing so. A patent-holder may choose to do nothing, or could try to license their idea to a third party. Some large corporations seem to gather patents as ammunition, providing a means for counter-suing if they unwittingly infringe another company’s patent.
It can be both complicated and expensive to apply for a patent, but if you have an innovation to protect then having a patent can give you a unique advantage over your opposition.
CopyrightYou will be familiar with copyright, if only from the small print you have seen in printed materials and at the end of the credits on television programmes.
Copyright is far simpler than patents. Indeed, these printed copyright statements are not even necessary – they are merely a way of stating who owns the copyright material in case someone wants to licence it.
If you record something in written form, and have not copied it from some other source, then you and your estate are automatically granted copyright for a certain term (in the UK, this is your lifetime plus fifty years). Other people cannot copy it (except under limited circumstances, known as fair use) without your permission unless you explicitly waive this right. This same right applies to most other creative works (music, film, and so on).
Registered DesignsIn the UK there are two related intellectual property rights covering the shape of configuration of products to prevent them from being copied.
The first of these is called UK Design Right. This is an automatic right that does not require registration, and runs for a period of 15 years from design or 10 years from the first sale, whichever is the shorter. This protection is available for free, but it covers only the three-dimensional aspects of an original design.
The second, stronger form of design protection is called UK Registered Design. For a small fee, this offers five-year protection (renewable up to 25 years) of the overall appearance of the design (not just its physical shape).
Protecting Your Brand: Trademarks
Businesses invest a lot of time and money building their reputations and creating brands that are recognised by the public. In order to protect themselves against other companies masquerading as them, organisations may designate the words and logos that represent themselves and their products and services as trademarks.
Words and images that are used as trademarks are usually designated with the ™ symbol. Even, such as your company’s distinctive jingle, can act as a trademark.
It is possible to register a trademark with the government (in the UK, with the UK Intellectual Property Office), in which case it is called a registered trademark and the symbol ® can be used.