Patents Trade Marks Designs Copyright

How to Protect your Business - The Different Kinds of Intellectual Property Rights

August 01, 2011

In today's fragile economy, keeping your business one step ahead of the game is more important than ever, and a key to achieving this is innovation.

A business that strives to improve its offering to its customers, whether by way of product development, improving service levels or developing innovative ways to reach existing and new customers, considerably improves its prospects for success, not only to ride out the current economic difficulties, but indeed to emerge stronger and better placed to prosper when times improve.

Of course, anything you do to improve your position could equally help to improve the position of competitors. All too often, particularly in difficult times, it can be tempting for struggling competitors to take a look around, assess why your company is enjoying the success it is and to plagiarise your ideas as their own.

Unless you have the tools to stop or inhibit such activities, your efforts to stay ahead can be wasted. Intellectual Property is key to keeping your ideas and innovations the preserve of your business. Although often thought of as a complex area of law, there are some quite simple, fundamental points that it is always worth bearing in mind every time you innovate.

Intellectual Property Rights can be split into five main categories: patents, trade marks, registered designs, unregistered designs, and copyright.

Looking briefly at each in turn, patents protect essentially technical developments, including product and process developments. A key point to remember is that a patent application must be lodged with the UKIPO before there is any public disclosure of the innovation. You must therefore exercise care not to place your products on the market too early, otherwise you could well destroy the patentability of your own inventions!

If your innovation involves the creation of a new identity or name for your product, service, or indeed any aspect of your business, you should consider protecting it by way of trade mark registration. Registering a trade mark will give you the right to prevent competitors from adopting the same, or indeed a confusingly similar trade mark, to sell their goods or services, particularly if they are the same or similar to those for which you have registration. Unlike patents, there is no formal requirement to file to register your trade mark before you put it into the public domain. However, it is generally advisable to do so. If you don't, and you launch your new unprotected brand into the market place, there is a risk that a competitor could not only adopt the same mark, but actually take steps to register it itself, in which case you may find that you have to relinquish the mark to them.

If an innovation is more aesthetic than technical, such as a new appearance for your product, then it may be registrable as a design. Registered design applications must again be lodged at the UKIPO, and particularly if you have interest in registering your design abroad, it can be key to file to register before you place the design on the market.

Aspects of design can in certain circumstances enjoy automatic protection by way of unregistered design rights. There is no need, or indeed possibility, to register such rights and so it is very important that you carefully document the creation of such designs, so that in the event you need to enforce the rights, you can prove they exist and you own them.

Finally, copyright. In similar manner to unregistered design right, copyright arises automatically upon the creation of certain types of original works. What does and does not enjoy copyright protection can be complex, but generally speaking copyright has limited effect where three dimensional products are concerned. Copyright is more for protecting artistic and literary works, so that for example a business's literature (including its website) is often protected by copyright. As with unregistered design right, it is important that the origination of all copyright work is carefully documented. It is also important to ensure that your business actually owns the copyright. It is common practice for businesses to outsource the design of its literature or website, for example, and in such circumstances it is good practice to ensure that all copyright works created belong to your business, to avoid a future dispute over who owns the copyright. If you don't, not only could you have difficulties in enforcing the copyright against third parties copying your material, but you could find yourself restricted in how you can reproduce it yourself.

One final important point to remember is that for both copyright and unregistered design right (unlike patents, trade marks and registered designs) in order for a third party to infringe, they need to have actually copied your material and proving this can often be difficult.

Hopefully, the above provides a useful insight into the basic forms of Intellectual Property Rights and how they may be relevant to the different aspects of your ideas and developments. These rights are far from mutually exclusive. An innovation can enjoy the protection of all five, representing an invaluable tool to keep you ahead of the game.

Swindell & Pearson has been helping businesses and individuals protect and defend their ideas, innovations and brands for over 130 years. With its head office in Derby, the firm also has offices in Stoke, Wolverhampton, Stafford, Sheffield and Burton. To find out how Swindell & Pearson can help you with any intellectual property requirements please get in touch via [email protected] or by telephone on 01332 367 051.