Intellectual property (IP) is generated when we use our minds to be creative in some way. Companies of all descriptions generate their own IP and also use other people’s. We interact with IP in all sorts of ways, every day. IP rights are complex in terms of their legal issues and also their commercial use. Here are some of the main points that every innovative company should consider.
1. Be clear about the different types of IP rights and how they affect you
Different IP rights protect different types of creativity. It’s important to know the difference between these rights, what they do and don’t protect, and how they relate to your organisation.
Trademarks, such as your company’s brand name or logo, help to protect your corporate identity and distinguish your products or services from those of your competitors. Patents protect technical innovations (inventions) relating to software, mechanical, electronic and other types of technology. Registered and unregistered design rights protect the ‘look and feel’ of products, while copyright comes into existence automatically once a qualifying aesthetic work (such as a literary creation, musical composition or drawing) has been created.
2. Sort out IP ownership at the start of your project
All too often, ownership of IP is considered once a project is underway. This might be once it’s a long way down the road. By this stage, there can be issues with regard to who owns any IP that has already been generated. So the time to consider IP ownership is when you start your negotiations with collaborators or contractors. Protect your commercial position by seeking professional advice at the outset and having written agreements in place which specifically include provisions for the ownership of IP. This can save a great deal of time, effort and money by pre-empting difficulties rather than trying to resolve them at a later date.
3. Don’t disclose your invention before you apply for patent protection
If you think you might want to apply for a patent to protect your technical innovation, don’t discuss this with third parties prior to filing the application, unless those discussions are in confidence (for instance, under a Non-Disclosure Agreement). Patents are granted for inventions which are novel (new) and inventive (not obvious) — and public disclosure of the technology can destroy its novelty, rendering patent protection unobtainable. This includes written, oral or on-line publications. So if in doubt, talk to a patent attorney for advice and get your patent application filed and pending at the UK Intellectual Property Office before you launch your product or enter into non-confidential discussions.
4. Be IP savvy, do your homework
IP rights are commercial tools. They exist to protect your innovation and can be extremely effective in supporting your organisation’s growth. However, they can also be used by others against you, even if you have been unaware of those other rights.
By being switched on about IP rights, you can do a lot to protect your own creativity and also help to avoid possible IP actions being brought against you by third parties. For example, keep detailed, clear records of your own IP including details of what has been created, when and by whom. When embarking on a new project, consider whether you might be walking into someone else’s IP territory. Does someone else have a trademark for the new logo or name that you want to use, or a patent that you might fall foul of? Do you have freedom to operate? Will you need to obtain a licence? IP professionals can perform patent and trademark searches, competitor watches to help identify what others are doing in your marketplace and give expert opinions on infringement matters. Some due diligence early on might just save you a great deal of expense and distress later on.