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How to identify and protect your intellectual property

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Small business owners cannot afford to give away their creativity for free, says Avi Freeman.

When many small business owners hear the words ‘intellectual property’, or IP, they tend to switch off. They might think that IP is beyond their grasp and that, even if they had any, they wouldn’t be able to do anything useful with it.

That is not the case. In fact, with a little bit of knowledge, good planning and decision-making early on, IP can be a very valuable resource to your business. Ignoring it and failing to take the right action early risks throwing away potentially very valuable assets.

Before going further, it might be worth recapping what we mean by IP. It is nothing more than an umbrella term for the basket of legal rights protecting the fruits of your innovation and creativity. It includes patents (for technical inventions), trade marks (e.g. for a name or logo), designs (for the way something looks) and copyright (for artistic, literary or musical works).


The way each of these legal rights works is different, and rules that might apply to one do not necessarily apply to another. Complexity and misunderstandings can creep in. For now, I’m going to focus most on patents and designs. Here are some tips that might help make IP work for you.

Keep schtum

 
Telling the world about a new product before you have taken steps to protect it with a patent or a design registration can render it invalid or impossible to obtain in the first place. It is very important, particularly for new inventions that you might want to patent, that you do not disclose details of how the invention works before your patent application has been filed. Act early, then, if you have had an idea that you think might be worth protecting. If you must disclose the invention, then be absolutely certain to have a non-disclosure agreement in place, but filing before disclosure is much the safer option.

Do some research


There are plenty of free and accessible resources out there, which can be useful in helping a small business owner decide how to proceed in trying to protect an invention. Online search engines exist that can be used to help you look to see if your idea really is new. The websites of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) and the UK Intellectual Property Office have lots of useful information too.


Get advice


Because they are so immersed in it, business owners often don’t realise how clever an idea is. From an inventor’s own perspective, an invention might seem like an insignificant step. However, to the wider world that might well not be the case. Most firms of patent attorneys are happy to have an initial discussion with an inventor at no cost so you should look to take advantage of such offers. There are also free clinics offered by CIPA where you can have an initial confidential consultation with an IP professional, so make use of this resource if you can.

Take action if needed


IP has a number of uses: defensive uses, whereby simply existing warns off competitors or puts up commercial barriers to them; and offensive uses, when they can be used to go after a third party for infringement.

Going after someone with a patent can be expensive, but new courts and procedures can significantly reduce the financial exposure if you start an action and then lose. So IP litigation is not necessarily beyond the reach of many small firms.

Avi Freeman is a partner at Beck Greener Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys, writing on behalf of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys cipa.org.uk