Intellectual property law for small businesses in the UK

The entrepreneurs who enter Dragons’ Den often lose points when asked if they’ve secured their intellectual property, or IP. But what is IP?

Businesses take reasonable steps to protect fixed assets, like their stock and equipment. But intangible assets can be more difficult to secure.

Intellectual property (IP) is an intangible asset. Your IP isn’t physical in nature, but patents, trade marks and copyrights can all add value to your business.

What is IP?

Your IP is something unique that you create. Ideas don’t count as IP under UK law, but things that result from an idea do. This could be a new invention, the name of your product, your brand, your services, or even how your products look.

But whenever businesses introduce something to the world, there’s a risk they might be copied. This risk is amplified by the internet, which makes it easier for unique IP to be stolen.

Small businesses in particular need to make sure they’re securing their IP, as competitors can easily steal ideas. If your business is built around your IP and someone copies it, you run the risk of losing market share – but there are rights and protections that make it easier to take legal action.

Even if your business doesn’t centre around your unique idea, it’s important to be aware of intellectual property law to make sure you’re not inadvertently stealing somebody else’s IP.

How to protect IP

You get some intellectual property rights automatically but, depending on the type of IP, you might need to register. It’s a good idea to have a thorough look at your business to work out what IP you have that needs protecting. This is called an IP audit and it should help you value your IP assets just as you would your physical assets.

Below, we talk about UK IP laws, but the rest of the world has different protections – so you may need separate protections in different countries.

Copyright

You don’t need to register for copyright. Copyright laws safeguard writing and literary works, art, photography, films, TV, music, web content, and sound recordings.

For small businesses, copyright protection is likely to apply to web pages you create, or original photography.

It’s also important to make sure you don’t infringe on anyone else’s copyright, particularly when it comes to using internet resources. You shouldn’t assume that just because it’s on the internet it’s in the public domain.

Design right

Design right protects the shape and configuration (how the different parts are put together) of objects. Automatic protection lasts for 10 years after the design was first sold, or 15 years after it was created – whichever’s earlier.

Types of IP – what you need to register

While the two IP rights above are automatic, small businesses built around a unique brand, product or invention may need to register for more protection. It all depends on what you’ve created, so a thorough audit of your business and its IP should help you work out what kind of protection you need. You can enlist the help of specialist attorneys if need be.

Here are the types of IP you can register, and why you might need to register them. You should make sure they meet the criteria for registration before going ahead:

  • Trade marks: you can protect words, images, slogans, and more as trade marks. This can help you protect a distinctive brand. Your trade mark must be unique and can’t be misleading or non-distinctive. It also can’t describe the goods or services it relates to – so trying to trade mark ‘lawnmower’ for a new lawnmower won’t cut it. A standard online trade mark application costs £170.

  • Registered designs: you can register the look of a product you’ve designed, as long as if it’s new. You can protect its appearance, physical shape, decoration and the configuration, which is how different parts of the design are arranged together. Registering a design makes it easier to tackle any infringement legally. It costs £50 to register one design.

  • Patents: these go further than protecting your design – they can protect a new invention, like a tool or machine, and how it works. You can only get a patent if your invention is something that can be made (or used), it’s new, and not simply a modification to something that already exists. Patents are expensive, with different fees involved at different stages of the process. Some estimates put overall fees at more than £2,000 – Gov.uk recommends you find a patent attorney if you want to go ahead with an application.

Keep in mind that Gov.uk says that multiple protections can relate to one product. So you might register a name and logo as a trademark, protect the product’s unique shape as a registered design, patent a unique part of the product, and copyright artwork relating to the product.

Staying on the right side of intellectual property law

You breach intellectual property law when you use someone else’s IP without their permission.

Before forging ahead with designing a product, registering a trade mark or applying for a patent, it’s a good idea to research and check that your idea is unique. You can look for existing patents, designs and trade marks on Gov.uk.

If you’re commissioning work (like asking a freelancer to design a logo for you), you should make sure that as the business owner, you have the rights to the work.

And you can purchase or license other people’s IP, and sell and license your own IP. Some companies might license other companies to use their trade marks – common examples are merchandising and franchising agreements.

The Intellectual Property Office has lots more information on intellectual property laws. You can also enlist specialist help from attorneys trained to deal with IP rights.

Let us know all about your experience with protecting your intellectual property in the comments below.

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