Here’s why you need to consider protecting your business
In partnership with the British Library Business & IP Centre
You’ve had the idea for an amazing product, maybe even developed it, and you know it will be a roaring success. But the problem is your genius idea can so easily be copied if you don’t protect it.
It may seem unimportant, but it’s likely your business will need protection.
Many small businesses assume it will be laborious, costly and time-consuming to protect their intellectual property, but it doesn’t have to be.
Why do you need to protect your ideas?
Intellectual property (IP) enables people to earn recognition or financial benefit from what they invent or create. If you don’t protect it, someone else could copy it and use it without your permission. They could even make money from it and you wouldn’t be able to reap the benefits of your great idea.
It’s also important generally that we as a whole encourage protecting people’s ideas as it promotes creativity and research and development among business.
“If you don’t protect your IP you could lose the competitive advantage provided by having IP protection as well as the right to list your IP as an important asset on the balance sheet of your business,” says IP expert Maria Lampert from the British Library.
“You will lose any monies spent on research and development of the idea as well as any opportunities to sell on or license your idea to others. You run the risk of having to sit back and watch others make money from the fruits of your labour,” she adds.
What can you protect?
The main things people aim to protect are the name of their business, its logo, any writing or design work created for the business and specific elements of a product. These are called intangible assets – things you or your business owns that you can’t touch, unlike tangible assets such as property, furniture or a fleet. Business owners would essentially be looking to protect anything original they have created.
What are the particular challenges for small businesses?
Small businesses can have it tough because they don’t have the huge team of lawyers or experience with intellectual property. If you’re a one-man or woman band and you haven’t tried to protect any of your ideas before, it can seem like there are a lot of options and you might not be sure where to go for advice.
“Innovators, entrepreneurs and creatives come to the British Library’s Business & IP Centre for free and impartial advice on setting up and developing a business and protecting their unique product or service,” Lampert says.
“We get to meet inventors just beginning their IP journey as well as start-ups looking for market research to complete their business plans and SME hoping to grow their businesses. It is very satisfying for us when an inventor or business we have helped succeeds.”
What tools can you use to protect your idea?
Copyright applies to things like written work and artistic work such as music and photographs. It is free and instant and, as it automatically applies, there’s no need to register it in the UK. Copyright stops people from directly copying or reproducing the work without permission – but it doesn’t stop people using an idea or producing something similar.
Another automatically applied protection is Design Right. It applies to a 3D shape of an original design, and stops people copying the shape, but doesn’t protect surface patterns or designs. It’s limited in that aspect, and also because it lasts only 10 years after the first marketing of things that use the design, or 15 years after creation of the design – whichever is earlier.
A similar registerable protection, known as Registered Designs, lasts up to 25 years and protects 2D shapes and patterns as well as 3D designs.
Most people are familiar with patents – they protect how something works or the method of making it. Patents aren’t automatic and business owners need to apply for them to protect their product. Failure to get a patent means anyone could copy your idea and sell it, and legally you can’t stop them. To get a patent, your invention must be new and not known anywhere in the world, have some sort of inventive step and be capable of industrial application.
Trade marks distinguish your goods and services from those of your competitors. It can be words, a logo or a combination of both. They need to be distinctive and recognisable to differentiate your business from your competitors. They don’t automatically apply, so you need to register them, but once you have trademarked your logo, for example, others cannot use it without your permission.
Where can you go for more?
There are a number of places you can go for more information. The government’s Intellectual Property Office can provide a basic overview of the different types of intellectual property protection.
The British Library has a Business & IP Centre in London with a number of resources designed to make it easier for small and medium sized businesses to understand and register their intellectual property. Their workshops and events, many of which are free, often get booked up quite early. See the British Library Business & IP Centre events website for more.
Guy Jeremiah appeared on Dragons’ Den in 2010 with his product Ohyo – a collapsible water bottle that can hold to 500ml. While he didn’t get investment from any of the dragons, it provided the impetus to start to get his basic product protected.
He worked with the Business & IP Centre to get the business’ intellectual property protected after years of painstaking refinements to the product. He says it’s hard to know what could have happened to Ohyo without a patent.
“However a patent is certainly a great way of putting people off attempting to copy our unique design,” says Guy.
“Why go to the effort of developing expensive tooling when they know we can prevent them selling the product?”
But’s it’s not just about avoiding copycats, he says.
“Having a patent also puts value in the business. Any potential investor or acquirer would place much more value in a company with a powerful suite of intellectual property.”
Patents were only one element though – he also secured design registration on Ohyo’s appearance, trademarks on the name and an eco-quirky brand.
Ohyo is now stocked in Boots and M&S and has sold more than 600,000 bottles.
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