As a business owner, you’ve got a million and one things to think about.

With a to-do list as long as your arm, there are always those niggly jobs that get pushed to the back of the queue on a regular basis.

But one thing you ignore at your peril is intellectual property (IP). Without a firm grasp on your business’s IP, you can seriously undermine the value of the company when you come to sell. Protecting it ensures the organisation retains its competitive advantage and safeguards future revenues.

IP comes in many forms, and touches nearly every element of a company’s brand, and carrying out an audit of existing assets may uncover surprising elements which have never been considered as valuable IP before.

So what is IP really, what are the key things you need to know, and how do you protect it?

The four pillars

Intellectual property breaks down into four main areas:

  • Copyright
  • Trade marks
  • Designs
  • Patents

Each of these has a different legal focus and requires a different approach.

Copyright…

…is where an author has exclusive rights to an original piece of work. These exclusive rights allow the author to make and sell copies of the work, as well as limiting what others can do with it. To claim copyright the author or writer needs records showing the original creation of the work, and should include a copyright statement that shows the author and the date.

Copyright need to knows

Software, animations, corporate videos, corporate songs, articles, brochures, newsletters and web content. Copyrights last for the original author’s lifetime, plus up to a hundred years beyond his or her death. Remembering to include the original date is, therefore, a vital tool for reinforcing copyright.

Trade marks…

…are recognisable signs, designs or expressions which identify products or services from a particular organisation and differentiate them from those of others. There are three different types of trademarks: registered trademarks, service marks and unregistered trade marks. Registered trademarks are registered with the UK or EU trade mark office. Service marks are used for services rather than products, and are registered in a similar way to products, while unregistered trademarks have some limited cover under trade secrets or “passing off”.

Trade mark need to knows

Product names, logos, jingles, brand names – in fact almost everything within your brand or corporate identity toolkit. The service marks also cover the services your organisation provides to prevent repetition or replication by competitors. Failure to trademark can severely impact on your brand’s success and future value.

Designs…

…refer to the characteristics of any shape, configuration, pattern or ornament, and registering the design is done in order to protect the external appearance of a product, package or article.

Design IP need to knows

A product’s appearance and packaging designs include shape, packaging, patterns, colours and decoration – all considered design IP. These follow the same approach as trademarks in becoming registered.

Patents…

…are the exclusive right granted by a government authority or licence to have the right to manufacture, import, use or sell an invention and to exclude others from making, using or selling it.

Patent need to knows

Equipment, inventions, technical processes and products that the company has invented, created or produced.

IP strategy

The UK operates on the ‘first-to-file’ principle – which means that companies need to be proactive when it comes protecting their intellectual property. It is costly and time-consuming to try and re-establish ownership of IP if you have failed to register or protect it in the first place.

For any organisation without a structured intellectual property strategy, Andrew Mackenzie, Partner at Scott & York IP Law, suggests businesses initially consider the following questions:

  • How do I protect my brand?
  • Can I get a competitive advantage with my products?
  • Which countries do I need to register in?
  • Where, geographically, are products or services provided under the brand now and in the future?
  • Where am I manufacturing products?
  • Where do I suspect copyists will operate, in the case of products?
  • How do I stop competitor products looking like mine?
  • Why do I need a patent, trademark or registered design?

The business owner or marketing professional also needs to consider if the business is currently infringing another organisation or individual’s intellectual property. For example, copying images from the web may infringe copyright law, particularly if the image is not attributed or a request to use has not been made.

So why is IP important?

How essential is your brand to generating revenues? Are you able to survive if a competitor creates an almost identical product, brand or packaging that make it easy for customers to mis-buy believing they are purchasing yours?

Investing in the right intellectual property protection makes financial sense and means you don’t have to find out the answer to these questions the hard way.

However, getting the correct and watertight legal protection in place isn’t always a simple matter. Using a reputable IP law firm to help register your trademarks, designs and patent applications provides the business with a sound portfolio of legal protection.

After all, good IP doesn’t cost the earth but does protect your business’ most valuable asset – its good name.