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Intellectual property – protecting your ideas

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    Whether you are a freelance web designer or the proprietor of a new drinks brand, intellectual property (or IP) is at the core of everything you do. It's the glue that holds the different strands of your business together. Without IP, your value proposition will be severely limited.

    The term IP includes patents, trade marks, registered designs, design rights, copyright and trade secrets. Each is important. However, most successful companies consider their IP rights holistically and implement a dynamic and iterative IP strategy to facilitate protection of innovation and mitigating external IP risks. This is a practice that cannot be started too soon.

    Where to start with intellectual property

    To fully understand your intellectual property position, you need to take stock. Key questions you might ask are:

    • Do we own all of the IP in our business?
    • Are our innovations adequately protected?
    • What are the external IP risks?
    • What are the internal IP risks?

    Commissioning an independent IP audit is a very shrewd investment and can pay huge dividends over time.

    A diligent audit will look at the following aspects of your business:

    • contracts (both internal and external) to identify any risks in terms of ownership of IP and liability
    • existing patents, designs and trademarks
    • the protection strategy for patents, designs and trademarks
    • a high-level review of competitor patents and trademarks.

    The output of the audit would be a detailed report that is tailored to your specific milestones. Recommendations would be made to help you plan your IP investment and put things in place at the right time to help you meet your objectives.

    Do I own the intellectual property that I use in my business?

    The general rule is that the creator of intellectual property is the first owner. That rule is reversed where IP is created by an employee or a director. Issues commonly arise where external consultants are engaged to provide specialist support, but the terms and conditions for that support are inadequate, or don’t exist at all. This can cause a serious problem further down the line when it is not possible to demonstrate a valid chain of title to critical IP.

    Flipping this on its head, if you are a consultant then you need to carefully consider what IP you are creating for your customers, what is your background IP and would IP be reasonable to assign and licence to your customer.

    We strongly recommend having clear terms and conditions in place for all relationships (both internal and external) including robust IP ownership and assignment clauses. Spending a little time getting into this habit will pay dividends in the future.

    Protecting your intellectual property

    Some IP rights such as copyright, trade secrets and design rights arise automatically upon creation. For example, if you take a photograph, you will own the IP in that photograph instantly. There are no registration requirements. Other IP rights such as patents, trademarks, and registered designs require registration in order to benefit from the protection they provide.

    So how do you know which IP rights are relevant to you? The following table provides a simplified reference to how certain IP rights are used:

    Patents Used to protect technical and functional inventions ranging from tools to new chemical compounds to technical software processes. Patents last for up to 20 years.
    Trademarks Used to ring fence a brand in connection with particular goods and services. Trade marks can be used to protect words, logos, colours, sounds and smells. Trade marks can last indefinitely.
    Registered Designs Up to 100 designs may be protected by way of a single application in the UK. Used to protect the actual appearance of a product for up to 25 years.
    Copyright An automatic right that is used to protect the creative content in text, art, photographs, music, video etc. Lasts for up to 70 years from the end of the year in which the author dies.
    Trade Secrets An internal process used to prevent highly confidential information being disclosed publicly. Can last indefinitely.
    Design Right An automatic right that protects against third-party copying of product designs. Generally lasts for 10 years from the date of first marketing.

    In most cases, more than one type of IP right should be used to protect your brand, content and innovations.

    How much does protecting your intellectual property cost?

    IP protection can get expensive, particularly if you are filing patents and trademarks in multiple countries. Luckily, the UK Intellectual Property Office is among the lowest cost IP offices globally. Example filing fees include:

    • Patents – from £210
    • Trade marks – from £170
    • Registered Designs – from £50

    Of course, professional support in preparing, filing and managing IP applications will add to these costs. Your cost exposure can be managed by selecting a professional that provides fixed and transparent fees. Most reputable firms will offer a free initial consultation where you can find out more about how they work and their charging structure.

    What about competitor intellectual property?

    This is another area that is commonly overlooked by start-ups. Even if you can successfully protect your own IP, that does not mean that you do not infringe someone else’s IP. It is important to understand what your key competitors are up to: i) to ensure that your IP strategy is mapped on to their activities; and ii) to take steps to avoid infringement that could cost you later.

    At a basic level, undertaking trademark clearance searches and periodic review of competitors patents, where appropriate, are worthwhile activities. The timing needs to be carefully chosen to avoid wasted expense however.

    Need intellectual property advice?

    IP matters are often time-sensitive. Our partner LawBite has lawyers that are able to respond quickly and cost-effectively. LawBite provides quick, affordable and easy-to-understand Intellectual Property legal advice and of course, they deal with other aspects of commercial and corporate law that can affect your business. They offer Crunch clients free legal consultations to help businesses identify the best ways to protect their Intellectual Property.

    You can book your consultation via our Legal support webpage, or speak to your client managers.