As a small business owner, protecting your intellectual property can be just as important as securing the physical assets you have in the business. Although you cannot touch or see your intellectual property, you still have rights and this article will define intellectual property by looking at the following areas:

  • What is intellectual property?
  • What does intellectual property mean for small businesses?
  • Types of intellectual property protection

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property (often referred to as IP) is original work you create. This term covers a lot of things, from written work, music and audio, to visual art, designs and symbols, as well as completely unique inventions. 

It doesn’t cover ideas, legally, but when you have acted on it and created something (whether physical like a product or intangible like a song), it will be counted as intellectual property. Intellectual property is considered an intangible asset, meaning it is a valuable item to your business that you cannot touch or feel.

Here are examples of various forms of intellectual property:

  • Original written literary work, such as stories, autobiography, poetry, theatre script or novels.
  • Visual art in various forms, such as painting, sculpture, photography and graphics, as well as choreography.
  • Music and audio sound recordings.
  • Architectural work.
  • Computer software.
  • An invention (a solution to an unsolved issue: it must be original and not an adaptation of something that already exists).
  • Trade secrets (anything from ingredients or recipes to sales methods or business plans).
  • Brand names, logos and symbols.
  • Product names, unique shapes and designs.

You will own intellectual property if you created it and it is original, and there are ways to protect your IP so that only you can use it, which we will cover next. You can also buy intellectual property from another creator. It can be transferred between owners or businesses and be sold, meaning you can make money from the intellectual property you or your business owns.

Why does intellectual property mean for small businesses?

Theft of intellectual property is very common. Startups and smaller businesses may feel the impact more than larger businesses if competitors beat them to using IP first in the market.

It’s important to take steps to protect your intellectual property. This could mean applying for a patent or registering a trademark, to safeguard your business. This can protect you if someone ever steals designs or logos that you use in your products or services, and you’d be able to challenge them legally over it. 

This also protects you against your competition. If you have created a product that is unique in the market, securing your intellectual property will ensure that you stay ahead of your competitors and keep your edge.

As well as providing legal security, the protection measures you take can also give you peace of mind, allowing you to focus your efforts on growing and developing your business.

Stating that you have a patent or trademark can also generate appeal for your business, giving you an air of authority and prestige in the market and building trust with potential customers. Featuring patented technology also highlights your expertise to potential collaborators or funding sources, and could open up a lot of opportunities for the business. In these instances, intellectual property is not only a protected concept or design that shows innovative spirit, but becomes an asset of value that could bolster your reputation and finances.

Types of intellectual property protection

Depending on what you have created, the protection differs. These are the most common types of intellectual property security you can get or apply for:

Copyright

Copyright is automatic protection for your work that you do not need to apply for or pay a fee for. It applies as soon as the work is created and can last decades (up to 70 years after the creator’s death) but the length depends on the form of the work, which you can check here.

There is not a register of copyright in the UK, but if you so choose you can mark your work with the copyright symbol (©), your business or personal name and the year of creation. If you don’t mark the work, it will not affect your protection, it’s simply a choice you can make that can add credibility. 

Copyright prevents others from:

  • Copying your work
  • Distributing your work (even if it is free)
  • Performing, showing or playing your work in public
  • Putting your work online without your consent

Patent

Patents are to protect new and original inventions (you can see the requirements for a patent here) and you can check a library of published patents to see if your invention is an adaptation of an existing one. Patents are the most difficult kind of protection to get and applications can take years to be considered and accepted. 

Patents do not cover creative works, such as musical and literary pieces, like copyright does. If you have an invention that you want to patent, you can read about the application process here. However, you must be prepared for a long and expensive process, including potential legal fees, annual renewal fees and the cost of defending your patent if challenged.

Trademark

Registering a trademark is a simpler process than patenting, it lasts ten years and you will pay a fee for renewal. Your work will only be trademarked in the UK unless you submit an international application too.

You are able to trademark product names, the name of your brand, company name, logo and colours, in the name of protecting your business brand. You can also apply for a series of trademarks for your business (such as variations of your logo). By trademarking you’ll be able to use the trademark symbol (®) and take legal action against anyone who uses the branding without your permission (such as counterfeit goods). 

You can find out about what you can trademark and how to apply here.

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