Protecting intellectual property All businesses have intellectual property (IP), regardless of their size or sector. This could be the name of your business, or copyright, designs, patents and trade marks. Your IP is likely to be a valuable asset. Securing and protecting it could be essential to your business' future success, so it's vital to understand your rights and how the law can help you. This guide explains the importance of conducting an audit of your business' IP. It sets out the different kinds of legal protection available for IP and explains the range of things you can do to protect and manage your IP rights. The importance of protecting intellectual property Intellectual property (IP) rights are valuable assets for your business - possibly among the most important it possesses. Your IP can: set your business apart from competitors be sold or licensed, providing an important revenue stream offer customers something new and different form an essential part of your marketing or branding You may be surprised at how many aspects of your business can be protected - its name and logo, designs, inventions, works of creative or intellectual effort or trade marks that distinguish your business can all be types of IP. Intellectual property management - conducting an audit The first step to protecting and exploiting your business' intellectual property successfully is carrying out a systematic intellectual property (IP) audit. To carry out an audit, look closely at your business to: identify where IP is used find out who owns the IP rights assess the value of the IP This won't always be straightforward. Remember that your IP doesn't just reside in patents you hold or trade marks you've registered. You also need to consider items such as any bespoke software, written material, domain names and customer databases. Key questions an IP audit should raise: Is my IP protected? Am I infringing anybody else's IP rights? Am I fully exploiting my IP? Getting legal protection for your intellectual property There are four main ways in which the law provides protection for your intellectual property. Patents Patents protect your inventions for a set period. You must apply to the UK Intellectual Property Office (UK-IPO) for a patent. You can only patent an invention if no one has done so before you. To see if there is an existing patent you need to carry out a patent search. Trade marks A trade mark is the distinctive way in which your business' goods or services are represented - in the form of slogans, symbols, words, logos, brand names or shapes, for example. You can take legal action to prevent someone else using your trade mark if you've built up sufficient trading reputation and goodwill in it - but this can be difficult to prove. For added protection it's a good idea to use trade mark registration to safeguard your trade mark. Design right and registered designs Design right gives automatic but limited protection for the appearance of three-dimensional objects. A registered design gives added protection and applies to both two-dimensional and three- dimensional objects. Copyright This is the automatic protection the law affords original literary (including software), artistic or dramatic work and sound recordings that are the result of intellectual effort or creative skill. This could cover your website's content, technical drawings or instruction manuals, for example. You can get information on copyright on the UK-IPO website. Assistance with intellectual property protection Intellectual property (IP) protection can be an important part of ensuring your Specialist legal advice is available! Patent attorneys are legally qualified in all aspects of patents, trade marks, design and copyright law. They are represented professionally by the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA). Similarly, trade mark attorneys are legally qualified in trade mark, design and copyright issues. They are represented professionally by the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys (ITMA). Protecting your ideas overseas IP protection is territorial, which means if you've registered protection in the UK it applies only within the UK. However, the majority of countries have similar laws relating to intellectual property and you can seek protection in other countries. Intellectual property and freelance contractors You should take steps to ensure your business owns any intellectual property (IP) rights in work created for you by freelance contractors. For example, unless you take adequate precautions you could find your business would be unable to use a successful advertising slogan across all its promotional material if the phrase in question was coined by an agency that agreed to produce the slogan for a one-off newspaper campaign only. You should therefore set out, in a written agreement, who will own, control and use the IP rights of all work created before a contractor produces anything for your business. Remember that IP rights may reside in promotional material, bespoke software - such as databases and website content management systems - and other creative work which may be undertaken by freelance contractors. You may want to seek legal advice when drawing up agreements with contractors. You can search for a solicitor on the Law Society website. Prevent intellectual property infringement If your ideas get into the wrong hands before you have taken action to protect them, you could find your intellectual property (IP) rights seriously compromised - or even lose them entirely. It's therefore very important that all your business' material in which there are IP rights is kept secure. This is essential before IP protection has been applied for - or registered - as any disclosure could jeopardise your claim to originality. For certain creative works it will also be important afterwards because enforcing your intellectual property rights against infringers can be time-consuming and expensive. Basic steps you can take to avoid IP infringement include: asking employees - and third parties to whom key information must be disclosed - to sign confidentiality agreements keeping important hard-copy information locked up Take special care when trying to sell or license an invention, idea or design to an agent, manufacturer or potential partner, even if registration is complete. Apart from a confidentiality agreement, if you have not protected your idea by applying for a patent, trade mark or design, post a dated copy of your idea to yourself using recorded delivery and lodge the unopened envelope and postal record with your bank or solicitor. Information stored electronically, particularly on computers connected to the Internet, needs protection from both lapses in security and IT disasters. You should: ensure sensitive information is kept on password-protected areas of your system install anti-virus software and keep it up to date install firewalls to prevent unauthorised users from hacking into your system and update them regularly back up your work and ensure back-ups are stored securely protect your system against power surges and failures Protecting your business name and domain name Your business name is the most basic intellectual property asset you have. It could also be the most important. Your business' reputation is tied up with its name so you don't want somebody else trading on it. If the name of your business is distinctive to the goods and services you provide, you may be able to take legal action against anyone using it in the same or a similar field. You will get additional legal protection if you register the name as a trade mark Protect your name on the Internet If you want to set up a website for your business you will probably want to register a domain name incorporating your business name, or any trade marks you have. To register a domain name you first need to check whether it's available. You can search domain names ending in .uk on the Nominet website. If you want a domain name ending in .com, you can search domain names ending in .com on the Network Solutions website. Many web hosting companies offer domain searching and registration facilities. However, having a trade mark doesn't give you an automatic right to a domain name incorporating your trade mark. Someone may have already registered the domain name you want for the same or different goods and services. But you may be able to take legal action if you think: someone is using a domain name to pass off their goods and services as yours someone has taken out your trade mark as a domain name just to sell it back to you Intellectual property management - carrying out searches It's a good idea to carry out searches to check you're not committing IP infringement. If you're planning to use a sign to distinguish your business from competitors, you should always carry out a full trade mark search - You could also use the UK Intellectual Property Office (UK- IPO) Search and Advisory service to search for you and check that your trade mark meets registration requirements and does not conflict with any existing trade marks. You should also consider checking with Companies House to ensure that no one else is using your proposed trade mark as their company name. Under the Trade Marks (Relative Grounds) Order 2007 the registrar can now register a trade mark that is the same as or similar to an existing trade mark, unless the owner of the earlier mark successfully opposes the new application. However, it is still worth checking that no one has registered the same or a similar trade mark before you make your application. If you want to make, use, sell or import someone's invention, you should carry out a full patent search. You should also do a search if you're considering applying for your own patent. If you want to make, sell, use or import goods you should carry out a full design search. If you want to use original creative work you should find out whether it is covered by copyright. Making a mistake and infringing upon someone else's rights could be costly, so it is worth obtaining professional help. You can get help with your searches from a patent attorney or trade mark attorney. Search for a trade mark attorney on the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys (ITMA) website.
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