When we think about IP we generally think it refers to something that somebody owns but that you can’t see.
IP is an intangible thing, a creation of the mind, of the intellect. It is protected by law in the form of patents, trademarks, designs and copyright enabling the owner to benefit financially from their invention or creation.
Putting the right type of IP protection in place helps prevent people from copying or stealing your brands, inventions or designs (i.e. the look of your product), the words you have written, or things you have made.
Types of IP rights
The strongest forms of protection must be applied for (i.e. registered trademarks, registered designs and patents) but some rights are automatic, such as copyright an unregistered design rights (protecting the shape of an object).
Registered rights are stronger as they are ‘exclusive rights’ in that copying does not have to have occurred for there to be infringement. In contrast to infringe copyright and unregistered design rights a person needs to have copied the protected work.
Thus, if registered rights are available it is preferable to seek such protection.
What does it mean to “own” IP?
IP is personal property just like a computer or a car.
You are the owner IP if you have created it or have had rights to the IP transferred to you from the creator or previous owner.
IP might be owned by more than one individual, or it could belong to a group of people or businesses. It is also something that can be transferred, licensed and even mortgaged.
You can get permission to use another person’s IP, by buying the rights or by entering into a licensing agreement, e.g. for using someone’s trademark. Having contacted the owner of a trademark and agreed the terms of the license the “licensee” can then use that trademark with permission by the “licensor”.
Licensed products are everywhere nowadays. From Disney characters emblazoned across yoghurt pots in the supermarket to entice children into nagging their parents to buy them over any other brand on the shelf, to high-end licensing deals in the world of fashion, licensing is a lucrative business.
With a license the benefits are not only to the owner of the IP (i.e. the registered trademark owner, now the licensor) but also to the company that has licensed the use of that brand or logo (the licensee). Increased sales of a licensed product mean more royalties paid to the licensor so you can see that a successful brand and the right type of licensing deal can be a profitable business from IP.
Registered IP protection
Trademark registrations protect ‘badges’ of origin of goods and services to help distinguish the goods/services of one trader from those of others.
The most obvious form of trademark is a word (such as a brand name) or a logo (e.g. the iconic McDonald’s Golden Arches), but there are numerous other forms of trademarks that are less apparent such as shape marks and pattern marks.
A company might want to protect a product because of its unique shape that differentiates it from other brands (e.g. Toblerone). When it comes to protecting a pattern then you only have to think about British fashion house Burberry who have trademarked their classic beige check pattern since the 1920s.
A patent is used to protect an invention; to qualify for protection it must be ‘novel’ i.e. has not been disclosed in public before and it must also be ‘inventive’, e.g. not just a slight modification of something that already exists.
The process of applying for a patent is complex and it normally takes at least a few years for a patent to be granted, although the process can be expedited if desired.
It is always advisable to utilise the services of a qualified patent attorney who will from the outset try to ensure the best possible outcome for their client.
If you want to protect the appearance of a product (or other new aesthetics) then you can apply for a registered design.
The protection afforded by a design registration can compose a number of elements: the physical shape, how it is configured (how the various parts of the design are arranged) colour, and its decoration.
Having a design registered gives the IP owner the rights to prevent others from using their design for up to 25 years and certainly simplifies the process of taking legal action against infringement if the need arises.
For something that is effectively invisible, IP is quite a significant weapon in your arsenal.
It can in fact be deemed a company’s most valuable asset. So whether you have just started your own business and need to register a trademark, or you believe you have done the necessary research and have all the information in place to develop a workable patent, your IP is critical to what you do. If you require any help with identifying, protecting and exploiting your IP please do not hesitate to contact us.