It is sensible for every business to have in place a strategy for their intellectual property from the start. Being aware of the rights available to you will enable you to protect one of your key assets.
There are four key categories of intellectual property rights to be aware of. Each right gives a different protection and is used for different purposes. Often however more than one type of intellectual property may apply to the same creation.
There is no worldwide legal protection; intellectual property has to be applied for in each country. In Britain, the UK Intellectual Property Office is responsible for registering intellectual property rights.
A trade mark is a sign that is capable of distinguishing goods and services from others in the marketplace. A sign may include a combination of words, numerals, designs and logos.
Trade marks can exist as registered or unregistered. Mark any unregistered trade marks you are using with ‘TM’. Whilst having no legal significance, this highlights to the public that you are trading under this name and associates the mark with your brand.
To register a trade mark, it must be:
(a) distinctive for a group of goods and services; and
(b) not identical or similar to any earlier registered trade marks for the same or similar goods and services.
The costs of filing a trade mark are relatively modest and a trade mark can often be registered in a couple of months. Once registered, the right lasts indefinitely provided certain renewal fees are paid.
Registering a design grants you the exclusive right in the look of your product and prevents anyone else from copying the physical appearance of it. The appearance of a product includes lines, shape, contours, texture and colours.
Registering a design can be quick and relatively cheap and it is easier to prove and prevent copying of your design than if the right is not registered. Once registered the design right lasts for 25 years.
Be aware that discussing and disclosing your designs before their registration could harm your claim that the design is original. Enter into confidentiality agreements with your employees and include IP clauses in their employment contract stating that any work produced by the employee in the course of their employment shall automatically belong to you as employer.
A patent is a monopoly right to use and exploit an invention relating to a new product or process. Protect your patents by registering them; this prevents other businesses from making, using or selling similar products.
To apply for a patent, you must submit a patent specification. This is a written description, often with drawings of the invention, explaining what the invention does, defining the scope of the patent and setting out important technical details. A patent can last up to 20 years subject to being renewed annually.
Copyright is a right that relates to the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. Copyright protects creative works such as sound recordings, films, photographs and original artistic, musical, dramatic and literary works.
Unlike patents, designs and trade marks, copyright cannot be registered. Proving ownership of an unregistered right is harder as you cannot simply point to the register. To evidence that copyright subsists in your materials, mark all copyright works with ‘©’ followed by your name or your company name, and the year of creation. This also serves to put third parties on notice that they cannot reproduce your work without your permission.