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Everything you need to know about intellectual property

Chessboard with pieces

So you’ve got a great idea, you’ve started your own business, and you’re starting to get in clients who are interested in the services you’ve got on offer. That’s all great, but have you considered protecting your intellectual property?

Intellectual property (IP) is defined as any type of idea, information, design, invention, logo, symbol, image or name that is used in commerce.

So this can be anything ranging from a company logo, to a cute character designed for the website of a childcare business, to a unique technique for measuring something, to the packaging, style and texture of a product.

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve invented a new product, created an attractive website, written exciting content, or come up with an unusual service – if it has value, someone is likely to want to copy it.

It might be a backhanded compliment, but failing to protect IP can prove to be costly for small businesses as they try to grow beyond being start-ups.

It’s unrealistic and expensive to patent everything about a business, but under the law you are given some automatic protections upon creating new pieces of work, and there are also other affordable protections that small business owners can apply for.

Automatic protections

Automatic protections mean that no one can use a piece of work without the owner’s permission. There are two types of automatic protections.

Copyright – All pieces of writing and literary works, art, photography, films, TV, music, web content and sound recordings are instantly protected under UK law. This includes all work that is created by employees for the business.

When it comes to logo designs and websites created by a third party contractor, small business owners are advised to pay for a full transfer of rights as part of the deal, to ensure they have full ownership of their IP.

Design right – The shapes and configurations of all objects are automatically protected under UK law for 15 years after it was first created, or 10 years after it was first sold, depending on which date is earlier.

Protections you need to apply for

There are three types of IP protections that require the owner to register their work. Unless the product is an invention potentially worth a huge amount of money, it is usually enough for small business owners to just register for trademarks and registered designs.

Trademarks – It is a good idea to register company names, brand names, product names, logos and jingles, and it takes four months for an application to be registered.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to secure the domain name, Twitter handle and Instagram handle for the company or brand’s website, as opportunists monitoring the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) may try to sit on URLs and social media accounts, and then demand a lot of money to release it to you.

Registered designs – Registered designs cover the appearance of a product, including shape, packaging, patterns, colours and decoration. Until a design is registered, there is nothing to stop another small business from making and selling a similar-looking product. It takes one month for an application to be processed.

Patents – Patents are primarily designed to protect inventions and products, for example machines and machine parts, tools or medicines. It takes about five years for a decision to be made by the IPO, which has to investigate the evidence submitted and ensure that the patent does not already exist.

The UK government strongly advises that business owners keep all IP in this category a secret until the registration comes through. And if you need to discuss your idea, make sure to use a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

Getting started

If you need help working out what type of IP your business has, Gov.UK has a free online course you can take here.

You can also get advice from organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), which was founded in 1974 to help support self-employed people in the UK.

FSB members have access to the FSB Legal Hub, which contains over 200 factsheets and in excess of 500 legal documents covering a wide range of business issues, including legal, HR, tax and health and safety.

The FSB also offers professional legal advice from trained specialists on a 24/7 advice help line manned by qualified solicitors and barristers, together with advice on intellectual property laws, including trademarks, patents and copyright, as part of the FSB Legal Protection Scheme.

FSB has also been lobbying the Government to make it easier for small businesses to take action on IP theft, by increasing the current small claim limit from £10,000 up to £15,000, and by working with the IPO and other industry bodies to understand the implications of Brexit on small firms’ protections and use of IP.


FSB Legal Hub from FSB

Factsheets and downloads for: Employment Law, Taxation Matters, Business Law and Health & Safety information. All free. As well as monthly bulletins.

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