IP Overview

Intellectual Property (IP) is a business asset with real financial value. Which makes it exceedingly curious that very many smaller businesses don’t pay as much attention to it as they should. Even more surprising as failure to protect IP could lead to putting the business at risk or even to its collapse. However, an excuse could be found: IP can be perceived to be so complicated and legally technical that this is an area that is best left to the lawyers. And then it gets forgotten about...

But if a letter out of the blue from a solicitor threatening to take you to court if you don’t pay for the software that you downloaded from a file-sharing site is not enough to make you sit up and think about that part of IP called COPYRIGHT, or if the legal representative of a company with a similar name to yours tells you to rebrand because they own the rights to the name, and you should have thought about that part of IP called TRADE MARKS, then this would be a wake-up call to indicate that IP is as important to your business as the accounts department!

The basic mechanics of the IP system are in fact not difficult to grasp. The main parts of IP that businesses should first attend to are: trade marks, registered design right, copyright and patents.

  • Trade marks protect your branding;
  • Registered design right protects the way your product looks;
  • Copyright is an automatic right that protects creative work such as literature or art;
  • Patents protect technological innovations.

Here is a snap-shot view of how the UK IP system works:

  Trade Marks Registered design right Copyright Patents
How long protected Indefinite if renewed each ten years Maximum 25 years Various. Life plus 70 years for literary and artistic works. Sound recordings are 50. Maximum20 years
Where protected UK UK UK and much of the world UK
Protects against Use of your trade mark or anything confusingly similar without authorisation Your product being manufactured, sold or imported without authorisation Your work being copied or reproduced without permission Your idea being used, sold or manufactured without authorisation
What is protected? Your brand identity What your product looks like Literary works. Music, art, films, Inventions

Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights

Protecting your intellectual property rights properly means that they can be easier to enforce. In the vast majority of cases the very knowledge that you possess IP is a powerful deterrent against copying. Occasionally, however, it needs to be enforced.

Copying your protected assets or using them without authorisation is called ‘infringement’. Counterfeiters are those who produce fake goods or services, whilst ‘piracy’ involves unauthorised copying. These illegal actions can quickly destroy markets and goodwill and bring your business down. Hence it is important to have deterrents in place and not to turn a blind eye when infringement becomes apparent. Keep a look out for infringers, even ‘inadvertent’ ones and act decisively.

Often a polite but carefully written letter from your legal representative pointing out your rights may be sufficient to solve a problem, but you should consider the possibility that taking a person to court might be necessary, although this should not be considered lightly because of the costs involved. However, IP insurance can help cover your legal costs should you need to take enforcement action, and a number of companies do now offer this. Advertising this fact could also act as a deterrent to potential conscious infringers.

More than one criminal law applies to counterfeiting and piracy, so in these cases different enforcement agencies might be involved. First contact would usually be with Trading Standards, after which the police or HM Revenue and Customs may be called. Contact information can be found on our useful links page.

By the same token, you need to be careful to avoid infringing the IP rights of others. If you receive a warning letter, there is no need to panic, but you should seek advice from a patent or trade mark attorney who will then advise on how best to respond and explain what happens next.

IP, like other forms of property, can be bought, sold and licensed. If you need to use someone else’s IP then you may be able to negotiate and come to an agreement giving you authorisation through a license.