by Philip Partington, Partner, Intellectual Property, JMW Solicitors
WHILE most business owners are aware of the fact that they own intellectual property (IP), most do not know the full extent of the IP they own or how they can best protect it. This is because there are several different types of IP, various strategies that can be used to safeguard these assets, and many forms of infringement from which businesses can suffer.
Intellectual property can encompass everything from a company’s ideas, products and trade secrets, to brand assets like its name and logo. For this reason, IP can be seen to represent the most valuable aspects of a company: its relationship with its customers, its competitive edge, and its reputation. Safeguarding IP assets means protecting these pillars of your business, and it is vital to understand what intangible assets constitute intellectual property so that you can be comprehensive in your strategy for managing and protecting them.
Here, the intellectual property experts at JMW Solicitors explain what business assets can be eligible for IP protection and what organisations need to do to benefit from these legal safeguards.
Why type of intellectual property do most businesses own?
It is often easiest to consider IP assets in terms of their legal status, as there are many types of business assets that might qualify for legal protection. There are three primary types of IP protection available to businesses in the UK: trade marks, copyright and patents. Each is designed to secure a different type of asset, and companies will usually need a combination of all three to ensure that all of their intangible property is protected from infringement.
Each type of IP works in a different way, as we will outline below:
Trade marks can be used to protect brand names, logos, and slogans that distinguish your business from others. Certain product names, packaging designs, jingles or sound effects can also qualify for protection. You must register an asset for trade mark status, ensuring that the asset (or a similar design) is not already owned by someone else. A trade mark solicitor can help you to check existing trade marks to ensure your mark is unique and eligible, and to register your ownership. These rights are jurisdictional and must be registered again if you move into another market.
Patents provide exclusive rights to inventors for their inventions for a period of up to five years. In the UK, this protection period can be extended to a maximum of 20 years through a process of annual renewals. As with trade marks, inventors must register their inventions for this protection, and it must meet certain eligibility criteria. Specifically, the idea must be unique and original (meaning that it is not generic nor already owned as a patent by someone else) and must not have been made available before.
Copyright protects original works of authorship such as software, literary works, music, and art. Unlike trade mark or patent protection, this applies automatically and is generally universal, meaning that your ownership of the copyright to your work is recognised around the world. With this said, enforcement differs greatly from country to country, so it is important to be vigilant in how you enforce your rights.
For businesses, the most common assets that will qualify for copyright protection are product descriptions and packaging copy, product images, website text and other pieces of written or visual content. In addition to these key safeguards, there are also database rights. These are designed to recognise the substantial investment it takes to obtain, verify, or present the contents of a database, and prevent the theft of confidential information.
Recognising the assets you own and registering them for protection are good starting points in securing your intangible property, but the work should not end there if you want to ensure your company is comprehensively secure from the risk of infringement.
How should businesses protect their IP?
Once an organisation has registered its assets, the most important way it can protect them on an ongoing basis is to monitor for infringement. Keep an eye on your competitors and others in your industry, as there is often a risk that they will try to imitate your success. In certain cases, this will infringe on your intellectual property – for example, if a competitor brings out a rival product with a similar name and packaging design to yours. If you have registered your ownership of the assets in question, you will be empowered to take action and restrict the competitors’ capacity to imitate your brand.
For larger organisations, developing an IP strategy is key. This enables you to ensure that every valuable asset benefits from the relevant legal protections and empowers you to take action should a competitor infringe on your rights. It also provides a pathway for you to fully commercialise and exploit your intangible assets. In some cases, there may be opportunity to draw significant extra value from a brand that has been carefully managed in this way.
Even for smaller businesses, there may be more value that could be extracted from intellectual property. The best way to gain oversight of the IP assets you own, the best strategies through which to secure them, and the options available to you in terms of selling, licensing or franchising your brand, is to speak to a solicitor. An expert intellectual property solicitor can perform a review of your company’s intangible assets to advise you on the steps you need to take.
If you involve a solicitor at the early stages – for example, during a rebrand or in product development – they can also help you to develop assets that will qualify for trade mark protection, helping to establish the foundations of a strong and secure brand identity for your business. This can create a space in which your company can grow and flourish, without facing the risks to your reputation and your customer base that come with competitors imitating your brand identity and the products you sell.