Posted: Wed 3rd Mar 2021
Intellectual property (IP) is what really makes a business 'tick'. It's a term that covers all the ways you put your ideas into practice. Your IP will ultimately determine what your company is worth, and whether anyone will want to buy it.
Small and young businesses that aren't 'IP aware' are highly prone to being imitated or ripped off by companies with deeper pockets. IP law covers how you protect your innovations and stop others stealing them.
Of course, IP is a two-way street: other companies own IP too. You need to understand the boundaries of what you can do with brands, technologies, designs and other people's words and images, if you don't want threatening letters dropping through your door.
What forms of IP are there? Which ones should I protect?
The best-known form of IP is a patent. This protects ways of doing things, like new methods of technology, for example.
If you're involved in making something new or in a new way, a patent could be very relevant. But if you're not, there are other priorities you should consider.
You can protect a brand with a trademark, and a distinctive style by a registered design. Copyright applies to any words and pictures you create (provided you haven't copied them from anyone else, of course). It also covers software you write.
You may have other assets that are part of the IP 'family', like trade secrets, specialist know-how, market reputation, or first mover advantage. The best thing to do is to compile a list and then critique it.
How can I protect my IP easily and cost-effectively?
Depends what it is. There are two basic steps every business can take, at little or no cost:
Put others on notice of copyright material that belongs to you
Put measures in place to keep your secrets safe
Other forms of IP protection don't have to be expensive. You can protect a design for five years for £50 in the UK, and a trademark in one class for £170. However, because IP is territorial, if you want to go global you'll have to set your budgets accordingly.
Getting a patent all the way to grant won't be cheap, particularly not if you need international protection. but the costs don't all come at once.
This gives you time to find out whether sales opportunities really exist before you have to pay to secure them. In the meantime, 'Patent Pending' status can be a really helpful marketing tool and is quite inexpensive to obtain.
Are there any specific IP considerations when taking a business online?
There are lots! But here are three key ones to think about:
Before you spend anything on a website, check the availability of the domains and the brand you want to use (as well as your company name, if you've not already chosen it). You don't want to spend good money developing a site and then get ordered to take it down because you've infringed someone else's rights.
As soon as you go online, anyone can find you. So never put any information in open view on your website that you might want to patent or need to keep secret.
No-one wants to copy a bad idea. But once you're successful, everyone will want a slice of the action! Prepare for online success by making sure you can protect the way your idea works, looks or feels.