Intellectual property rights for small businesses: what you need to know

When it comes to physical property, keeping it secure is right up there on the priority list. As a small business owner, you would never knowingly leave your shop cashbox open or your office door unlocked overnight, right? With intellectual property, small businesses need to take a similar approach, too.

For instance, think about where your competitive edge will come from. For many entrepreneurs, it’s the assets you create, such as your original products or concepts. These are what makes a business unique, and they’re likely to be some of the most valuable assets you own. The purpose of this article is to ensure that you are well-versed in the safety of your company and what will soon become your intellectual property.

What intellectual property means for small businesses

Intellectual property (IP) is a form of intangible (i.e. non-physical) property. It refers to ‘creations of the mind’: inventions, industrial designs, names, written work, imagery, symbols, and a host of other items that are both unique and existing.

For instance, a simple idea for a new app is not IP. But the written plans for it, the prototype version, and the app itself are all IP assets. With any type of property ownership comes certain rights. It belongs to you, so you should control how it is used and who uses it. IP law might seem like a minefield at first glance but at heart, it’s about trying to ensure that these rights are recognised and respected. How this is done depends on the type of asset you are trying to protect.

To give you a better understanding of this, let’s take a closer look at the main categories of IP and what you need to do to protect your business.

Trademarks

A trademark is a unique means of identification relating to your business. It could consist of words, a symbol, sounds or colours, or perhaps a combination of any of these. It could even be your business name, the name of a particular product or service, a logo, or a marketing slogan. Nike’s trademark slogan ‘Just Do It’ and the Intel 4-note jingle are two great examples.

The easiest way to protect a trademark is by registering it with the UK Intellectual Property Office, which can be done online. Bear in mind that it must be distinctive and non-offensive, though. Beforehand, check the trademarks database to ensure that your intended trademark has not been taken already.

Once it is registered, you are entitled to put the ® symbol next to the protected mark to ward off possible imitators. You can also point to the fact of registration to prevent anyone else using the mark — or something very similar to it.

For any startup, the business name tends to come top of the list of assets to protect. Even if you are not ready to register a trademark, or to even begin trading just yet, it’s worth registering as a dormant company in that name. It’s quick, easy to do, and prevents anyone else from doing it. Likewise, registering a domain name effectively reserves that website address for your use.

Patents

This relates to ‘inventions’. To qualify for a patent, an invention must be novel and have a commercial or industrial use. This could be a completely new product, for instance. It could also be a new method for creating a product or of achieving a certain end result such as a new manufacturing process.

A UK patent can effectively give you a monopoly for the use of it for up to 20 years. According to the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), only 1 in 20 applicants achieve a patent without professional help. Applying for one is a highly specialist process and can take as long as 5 years, for instance. So, if you realise you might have an original invention on your hands, it’s important to approach an IP lawyer as soon as possible. Many offer an initial cost-free consultation which can prove invaluable in weighing up your options.

Design Rights

Often, it’s not the way it works, but the way in which an item looks that makes it innovative and establishes it as being a creation of your business. It is important to protect your creation through asserting and preserving your design rights. This applies to the look, shape, configuration, and decoration relating to your products.

Registering your unique design with the IPO gives you the right to stop others from using it for up to 25 years. Once registered, if you discover that someone else has copied it, registration makes it more straightforward to take legal action against those copycats.

This is primarily designed to protect artistic works but it can be extremely useful for ‘non-creative’ businesses, too. For example, copyright can cover various aspects of a business. It can apply to the original content on your company’s website. This is as well as photographs, trade brochures, instruction manuals, and informational videos you might have produced.

There is no process of copyright registration in the UK unfortunately. However, it’s good practice to assert your rights publicly to ward off imitators. For instance, consider a standard footer on your website. Something like: “This website and its content is copyright of [your business name] © – [your business name] [year]. All rights reserved.”  

If you spot that you’ve been ripped off, a strongly worded letter from a solicitor is often all that is needed to cause them to cease and desist; never underestimate the power of a few well-chosen words. Failing this, court proceedings are the ultimate remedy. This could include a possible injunction forcing them to remove the offending item. There are a number of routes you can go down.

IP rights form a valuable part of your business, helping to shield your most valuable assets. For further information on how assets — both physical and intangible — can be protected, head on over to our help centre.

Was this article helpful?

Related Articles