How to protect your idea – copyright, trademarks, patents…

Open books stacked haphazardly in a library.

If you create something new, whether it is a new product or service, or a new logo or design, it is important that you protect it so that no-one else can steal it from you. The good news is there are several options:

1. Get a patent

If you have created a genuinely new product or process, then the best way of protecting your invention is to get it patented. A patent gives inventors a monopoly on their products for up to 20 years by giving them the right to stop anyone else from making it or using it without permission. If they try, you can take them to court. Not only does the patent establish the invention or process as being yours, but it also means it can be bought, sold, rented or licensed. That means it can be a useful bargaining tool when trying to persuade manufacturers and investors to get on board.

First check that nobody has thought of your idea already, by visiting the Intellectual Property Office’s website. (www.ipo.gov.uk). It lists 30 million patents worldwide and contains advice on how to access the details. If you still think your idea is unique, you can apply for a patent by filing a description and submitting drawings. You can apply for a patent yourself, but if your idea is in any way complicated, you can also hire a patent attorney to do it on your behalf.

Advantages

1. You can patent an idea or a process.

2. The mere existence of a patent may be enough on its own to stop others from trying to exploit your invention.

3. Having the words “patent pending” on your product while your application is granted can be an effective deterrent to would-be copycats.

Disadvantages

1. It can take several years to get a patent granted.

2. It can be a very complicated process, and if you are using a patent attorney to help you, it could end up costing you a lot of money.

3. It is only valid for up to 20 years.

4. Your patent will be published after 18 months after filling by the Intellectual Property Office on its website, so others can then gain advance knowledge of technological developments which they will eventually be able to use freely once the patent ceases.

CASE STUDY

Ron Hamilton, an entrepreneur who developed a manufacturing process that enabled him to make disposable contact lenses, could not afford to go through the patent process himself. So he entered into an agreement with British Technology Group, which markets bright ideas from academia, in which he assigned the patent to them in return for 50% of the ensuing income. Once the patent was granted, Hamilton was able to get additional investment. Within three years he was able to sell the business including the intellectual property to the eyewear company Bausch & Lomb for £33 million.

He said: ‘Patents are central to creating value in a business. You can develop the business without a patent, but it will be valueless because it can be replicated. You must give yourself a competitive advantage and to do that you must look at every aspect of protecting your intellectual property.’

2. Get a trademark

A trademark is a sign or symbol that distinguishes your goods and services from those of your competitors. Registering a trademark gives you the exclusive right to use your mark for the goods and services that it covers, and allows you to take legal action against anyone who uses it without your permission. It is your property, which means you can sell it, or give other people a licence to use it.

How to get one

A trademark application typically takes three to six months to be processed. It is possible to apply for one online direct from the Intellectual Property Office (ipo.gov.uk) at the cost of £200 for a class of goods and services plus £50 for every subsequent class. However, if the application is in any way complicated, it would be better to use a trademark lawyer to make the application. This is likely to cost between £1,000 and £2,000.

Trademarks include not only individual words, known as word marks, and logos – a sentence, a phrase, and even shapes and sounds can be trademarked. For example, the jingle accompanying television advertisements for Direct Line insurance has been trademarked, as has the shape of Lego bricks and the Coca-Cola bottle. Tesco’s slogan, Every Little Helps, is also protected.

For a trademark to be effective it needs to be registered for all the classes of goods and services for which it is going to be used — musical instruments, for example, or furniture — and in all the countries where the goods and services are going to be sold. A UK trademark has no legal force on the Continent or in America.

Advantages

1. Trademarks can be renewed every ten years and are valid indefinitely.

2. They are a much quicker and cheaper way of protecting your business than a patent is.

Disadvantages

1. You need to ensure that you have registered your trademark for all the categories and territories you need it for, for it to be completely effective.

Case Study

One of the first things Jason and Anita Pritchard did when they set up their baby and toddler clothing business in Petts Wood, Kent, was to trademark the name — Dijjie — and the bear’s head logo used in their designs. Registering the trademarks cost them £6000, using the services of a lawyer, but that gave them the confidence to sign distribution deals with retailers such as Asos.

Jason said: “There is no doubt that having the trademarks has helped us develop the value of our brand and also to win business.”

3. Copyright

Copyright applies to all sorts of written and recorded materials including software and databases, drawings and photography, and applies to the internet in the same way as other media.

How to get it

Copyright is applied automatically, so you don’t have to register for it.

Advantages

1. It lasts for the life of the creator, plus 70 years from their death.

Disadvantages

1. Copyright doesn’t protect ideas – the work must be fixed, i.e. recorded or written down.

2. It is fairly limited in its scope, so you are likely to need other forms of protection too.

4. Protect your Designs

A registered design protects the visual appearance of a product in the country where it is registered. You can register a three-dimensional product or a two-dimensional design. A design can be protected for up to 25 years and has to be renewed every 5 years.

How to do it

Ensure that your design can actually be registered by reading the guidelines on the Intellectual Property Office website (ipo.gov.uk) If so, you can apply for Registered Design protection by downloading and completing the application form. It costs £60 to register a single design and £40 to register additional designs in a multiple application.

Advantages

1. Once you have protected your design, you can sell or license it.

Disadvantages

1. Not all symbols or designs can be registered.

5. Confidentiality Agreements

You can prevent someone from stealing your idea by asking interested parties to sign a confidentiality agreement before revealing details of your proposed venture. The agreement should define what information you are talking about, and state that both parties will agree to keep it confidential and will use it only for the purposes of the particular discussion that they are having. It does not have to be long – one side of an A4 paper will suffice.

Advantages

1. A confidentiality agreement is simple and straightforward to draw up.

Disadvantages

1. You may struggle to get people in positions of power to sign them. Either they will refuse, or they will send it to their legal departments which will slow the whole process down. If you find yourself in this situation, the best thing to do is make clear in all correspondence that the information you discussed is confidential. Head your correspondence “strictly confidential” and put in your letters that you are sharing this on a confidential basis. If there is a presentation, put “strictly confidential, all rights reserved” on it and the copyright sign with your name and the year. You can still have a confidential relationship even if there isn’t a written agreement.

Things to Consider

The fear of someone stealing your idea should not deter you from telling relevant people – such as advisers, accountants and solicitors – about your plans because otherwise, they will not be able to help you. It is important to keep it in proportion.

Case Study

Harry Cragoe is the founder of PJ Smoothies, which makes drinks from blended fruit, which he sold in 2005 for £20 million. He has always taken a very relaxed approach to protecting his idea, in the belief that even if people think your idea is a good one and worth pursuing, they are highly unlikely to do anything about it.

He said: “I have lost count of the number of people I have met who said what a good idea mine was and that they had been thinking of doing it themselves. The world is full of people who are thinking of doing something – there aren’t very many who get off their backsides and do it.” He added that even if someone did try to copy his idea, they would have been at a significant disadvantage, saying: “Unless someone had been working on it for some time, I knew I was at least two years ahead of them. I also arrogantly thought that I could do it better than anyone else.”

In the event, Cragoe said, it took four years for a rival to launch a competing smoothie product on the market.

Useful Contacts

Intellectual Property Office

Design Council

The Institute of Trademark Attorneys

The Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys

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