Intellectual property is often an area which small businesses overlook, either because they think it is not relevant to them, or because it is surrounded in complex rules. The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) have been making a lot of effort recently to educate small businesses about intellectual property and have recently launched an online Intellectual Property Health Check Service.
There are four main types of Intellectual Property, all of which can be used by start-ups and small businesses. These are:
Patents: Getting a patent can be quite a slow and costly process. It can take two to three years and will normally cost £200 to £300 plus the costs of a specialist trade mark lawyer. You can only patent something if it is an invention which no-one else has seen before and if it can have an industrial use. It is difficult to patent anything which is not a physical object. So, for instance, scientific theories, business methods or computer programmes are not normally patentable. The major benefit of having a patent is that you can stop rival businesses from copying your idea or you can licence it to them for a profit.
Trade marks: It is much more common for a new start-up business to apply for a trademark. Trademarks cover the name and logo of a business, effectively covering it’s brand image. It is the only way in the UK to get real protection for a business name. Sole traders who make up the majority of businesses in the UK do not have to register their business name. Forming a limited company stops anyone else from registering a company with the same name but it does not stop them from trading under a name identical to an established business. A trademark means you have an absolute right to a business name. Trade marks have to be applies for in one or more of the 47 categories used by the Intellectual Property Office. You have to pay a separate fee for each category or class of trade mark which normally costs in the region of a few hundred pounds.
Designs: Design protection is probably the least known form of Intellectual Property protection. It covers the appearance of a products. This includes the visual look of the products and the materials it is made from. There are some automatic rights assigned to a design and it may overlap with copyright protection. However the most secure way to protect a design is to register it with the Intellectual Property Office. This normally costs £60 and the protection can last for up to 25 years. Having a registered deign is a bit like having a patent, you can use it to stop people copying your ideas or as the basis for a licensing agreement.
Copyright: Copyright is an automatic form of Intellectual Property Protection. It covers written material and recordings. It starts from the point where something is published and normally lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator. Copyright is useful for businesses as it can cover sales materials, website contents, computer programmes, training materials and anything else that is written or recorded. It is normally used to stop anyone else from copying your work but can also be used as the basis for licensing agreements. Because it is an automatic right you do not need to register anything. It is sensible though to establish the date when a work was created. This can either be done by publishing it or by lodging it with a solicitor or sending yourself a copy by recorded delivery.
While it may not be at the top of your list when starting a new business getting your Intellectual Property sorted can be very valuable down the road. It can stop people trying to copy or take advantage of your good name and it can protect your products and ideas. Properly documented Intellectual Property can also be classed as an asset in the company accounts and can become a revenue stream in its own right.
If you want to find out more about how your business can use Intellectual Property you can speak to one of our business consultants. We can also conduct trade marks searches for you and help you with the trademark registration process.