How to protect your business's intellectual property

It’s not just tech giants with new inventions that need to keep their intellectual property safe.

Hands protecting a light bulb © iStockphotos

There are several ways to safeguard your brand
(Image credit: Hands protecting a light bulb © iStockphotos)

It's not just tech giants with new inventions that need to keep their intellectual property designs and ideas safe.

Do you know what your company's intangible assets are and how to protect them? If not, you could be in for a shock. Government figures show that businesses invest around £140bn a year in tangible assets such as equipment and stock; they then take steps to stop such assets being stolen and are likely to insure them.

But while investment in intangible assets such as intellectual property is at a similar level £135bn a year according to official estimates businesses are much less likely to put protection in place.

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Many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) think intellectual property isn't something they need to worry about that only high-tech firms constantly coming up with new inventions need protection.

In reality, however, your intellectual property is anything at all you've created that is unique to you. That could be a new invention, but it could also be the name of a product or service, your brand or simply how your product looks. If another business steals your idea, the damage to your business in lost revenues could be substantial. In the UK alone, intellectual property theft runs into tens of billions of pounds each year.

The good news is that it's easier and cheaper to take steps to look after your intellectual property than you might assume. But first you need to identify what you have that needs safeguarding.

An intellectual property audit a thorough trawl through your business to identify all your intellectual property assets is an important first step. Understanding the value of your business's intangible assets is just as important as maintaining a register of its physical assets. Once you know what you have, you can put safeguards in place. These will vary according to the nature of the intellectual property.

Some protection is automatically granted. For example, copyright laws automatically apply to writing, photography and other types of content creation. That could include your firm's internet pages, for example, or images you've commissioned to promote products and services.

Similarly, design rights automatically protect the shape and configuration of objects basically, how a product is put together for a fixed period after they are created or sold.

In other cases, you'll need to register intellectual property to protect it, potentially with the help of a specialist intellectual property lawyer. Trademark protection covers ideas such as words, images and slogans and can help you ensure your brand remains distinctive. There are clear rules about what qualifies, and trademarks must be unique and not misleading. Registering a trademark costs £170 and you can do it online via the portal.

Registered designs are another option. For a £50 fee, you can register the design of a new product its appearance, shape, decoration and configuration, for example.

Dealing with patents

Patents are a slightly more complicated option and you probably will need specialist help to file a successful application. A patent protects a new invention, including how it works, and is likely to cost you several thousand pounds including legal fees.

Bear in mind that you can use several types of intellectual property protection at once. A new product might have its own patent, as well as trademark protection covering its name and logo, a registered design for its configuration, and copyright safeguarding the photography promoting it.

The government's Intellectual Property Office is a good starting point for finding out more about protecting your business's intangible assets, including what to do to enforce your rights if you believe they have been infringed.

David Prosser
Business Columnist

David Prosser is a regular MoneyWeek columnist, writing on small business and entrepreneurship, as well as pensions and other forms of tax-efficient savings and investments. David has been a financial journalist for almost 30 years, specialising initially in personal finance, and then in broader business coverage. He has worked for national newspaper groups including The Financial Times, The Guardian and Observer, Express Newspapers and, most recently, The Independent, where he served for more than three years as business editor.