India: Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) For Startups

Intellectual Property Rights (IP Rights) are like any other property rights which are intangible in nature. The IP Rights usually give the creator an exclusive right over the use of his/her creation for a certain period of time. With the rapid increase in the globalization and opening up of the new vistas in India, the "Intellectual Capital" has become one of the key wealth drivers in the present era. There are different country specific legislations, as well international laws and treaties that govern IP rights.

Every startup has IP Rights, which it needs to understand and protect for excelling in its business. Every startup uses trade name, brand, logo, advertisements, inventions, designs, products, or a website, in which it possesses valuable IP Rights. While starting any venture, the startup also needs to confirm that it is not in violation of the IP Rights of any other person to save itself from unwarranted litigation or legal action which can thwart its business activities. Further, startup ventures should be proactive in developing and protecting their intellectual property for many reasons like improving the valuation of its business, to generate better goodwill, to protect its competitive advantage, to use intellectual property as a marketing edge and to use the IP Rights as a potential revenue stream through licensing.

IP Rights protect several aspects of a business and each type of IP Right carries its own advantages. The scope of IP Rights is very wide, but the prime areas of intellectual property which are of utmost importance for any startup venture are as follows:

  • Trademarks
  • Patents
  • Copyrights and Related Rights
  • Industrial Designs
  • Trade Secrets


The Trade Marks Act 1999 ("TM Act") provides, inter alia, for registration of marks, filing of multiclass applications, the renewable term of registration of a trademark as ten years as well as recognition of the concept of well-known marks, etc. It is pertinent to note that the letter "R" in a circle i.e. ® with a trademark can only be used after the registration of the trademark under the TM Act.

Trademarks means any words, symbols, logos, slogans, product packaging or design that identify the goods or services from a particular source. As per the definition provided under Section 2 (zb) of the TM Act, "trade mark" means a mark capable of being represented graphically and which is capable of distinguishing the goods or services of one person from those of others and may include shape of goods, their packaging and combination of colors.

The definition of the trademark provided under the TM Act is wide enough to include non-conventional marks like color marks, sound marks, etc. As per the definition provided under Section 2 (m) of the TM Act, "mark" includes a device, brand, heading, label, ticket, name, signature, word, letter, numeral, shape of goods, packaging or combination of colors or any combination thereof.

Accordingly, any mark used by the startup in the trade or business in any form, for distinguishing itself from other, can qualify as trademark. It is quite significant to note that the Indian judiciary has been proactive in the protection of trademarks, and it has extended the protection under the trademarks law to Domain Names as demonstrated in landmark cases of Tata Sons Ltd v Manu Kosuri & Ors [90 (2001) DLT 659] and Yahoo Inc. v Akash Arora [1999 PTC 201].

Points to Consider While Adopting a Trademark

Any startup needs to be cautious in selecting its trade name, brands, logos, packaging for products, domain names and any other mark which it proposes to use. You must do a proper due diligence before adopting a trademark. The trademarks, can be broadly classified into following five categories:

  1. Generic
  2. Descriptive
  3. Suggestive
  4. Arbitrary
  5. Invented/Coined

Generic marks means using the name of the product for the product, like "Salt" for salt.

Descriptive marks means the mark describing the characteristic of the products, like using the mark "Fair" for the fairness creams.

Suggestive marks means the mark suggesting the characteristic of the products, like "Habitat" for home furnishings products.

Arbitrary marks means mark which exist in popular vocabulary, but have no logical relationship to the goods or services for which they are used, like "Blackberry" for phones.

The invented/ coined marks means coining a new word which has no dictionary meaning, like "Adidas". The strongest marks, and thus the easiest to protect, are invented or arbitrary marks. The weaker marks are descriptive or suggestive marks which are very hard to protect. The weakest marks are generic marks which can never function as trademarks.

India follows the NICE Classification of Goods and Services for the purpose of registration of trademarks. The NICE Classification groups products into 45 classes (classes 1-34 include goods and classes 35-45 include services). The NICE Classification is recognized in majority of the countries and makes applying for trademarks internationally a streamlined process. Every startup, seeking to trademark a good or service, has to choose from the appropriate classes, out of the 45 classes.

While adopting any mark, the startup should also keep in mind and ensure that the mark is not being used by any other person in India or abroad, especially if the mark is well-known. It is important to note that India recognizes the concept of the "Well-known Trademark" and the principle of "Trans-border Reputation".

Example of well-known trademarks are Google, Tata, Yahoo, Pepsi, Reliance, etc. Further, under the principle of "Trans-border Reputation", India has afforded protection to trademarks like Apple, Gillette, Whirlpool, Volvo, which despite having no physical presence in India, are protected on the basis of their trans-border reputation in India.

Enforcement of Trademark Rights

Trademarks can be protected under the statutory law, i.e., under the TM Act and the common law, i.e., under the remedy of passing off. If a person is using a similar mark for similar or related goods or services or is using a well-known mark, the other person can file a suit against that person for violation of the IP rights irrespective of the fact that the trademark is registered or not.

Registration of a trademark is not a pre-requisite in order to sustain a civil or criminal action against violation of trademarks in India. The prior adoption and use of the trademark is of utmost importance under trademark laws.

The relief which a court may usually grant in a suit for infringement or passing off includes permanent and interim injunction, damages or account of profits, delivery of the infringing goods for destruction and cost of the legal proceedings. It is pertinent to note that infringement of a trademark is also a cognizable offence and criminal proceedings can also be initiated against the infringers.


Patent, in general parlance means, a monopoly given to the inventor on his invention to commercial use and exploit that invention in the market, to the exclusion of other, for a certain period. As per Section 2(1) (j) of the Patents Act, 1970, "invention" includes any new and useful;

  1. art, process, method or manner of manufacture;
  2. machine, apparatus or other article;
  3. substance produced by manufacture, and includes any new and useful improvement of any of them, and an alleged invention;

The definition of the word "Invention" in the Patents Act, 1970 includes the new product as well as new process. Therefore, a patent can be applied for the "Product" as well as "Process" which is new, involving inventive step and capable of industrial application can be patented in India.

The invention will not be considered new if it has been disclosed to the public in India or anywhere else in the world by a written or oral description or by use or in any other way before the filing date of the patent application. The information appearing in magazines, technical journals, books etc, will also constitute the prior knowledge. If the invention is already a part of the state of the art, a patent cannot be granted. Examples of such disclosure are displaying of products in exhibitions, trade fairs, etc. explaining its working, and similar disclosures in an article or a publication.

It is important to note that any invention which falls into the following categories, is not patentable: (a) frivolous, (b) obvious, (c) contrary to well established natural laws, (d) contrary to law, (e) morality, (f) injurious to public health, (g) a mere discovery of a scientific principle, (h) the formulation of an abstract theory, (i) a mere discovery of any new property or new use for a known substance or process, machine or apparatus, (j) a substance obtained by a mere admixture resulting only in the aggregation of the properties of the components thereof or a process for producing such substance, (k) a mere arrangement or rearrangement or duplication of known devices, (l) a method of agriculture or horticulture, and (m) inventions relating to atomic energy or the inventions which are known or used by any other person, or used or sold to any person in India or outside India. The application for the grant of patent can be made by either the inventor or by the assignee or legal representative of the inventor. In India, the term of the patent is for 20 years. The patent is renewed every year from the date of patent.

Use of Technology or Invention

While using any technology or invention, the startup should check and confirm that it does not violate any patent right of the patentee. If the startup desires to use any patented invention or technology, the startup is required to obtain a license from the patentee.

Enforcement of Patent Rights

It is pertinent to note that the patent infringement proceedings can only be initiated after grant of patent in India but may include a claim retrospectively from the date of publication of the application for grant of the patent. Infringement of a patent consists of the unauthorized making, importing, using, offering for sale or selling any patented invention within the India. Under the (Indian) Patents Act, 1970 only a civil action can be initiated in a Court of Law. Like trademarks, the relief which a court may usually grant in a suit for infringement of patent includes permanent and interim injunction, damages or account of profits, delivery of the infringing goods for destruction and cost of the legal proceedings.


Copyright means a legal right of an author/artist/originator to commercially exploit his original work which has been expressed in a tangible form and prevents such work from being copied or reproduced without his/their consent.

Under the Copyright Act, 1957, the term "work", in which copyright subsists, includes an artistic work comprising a painting, a sculpture, a drawing (including a diagram, a map, a chart or plan), an engraving, a photograph, a work of architecture or artistic craftsmanship, dramatic work (recitation, choreographic work), literary work (including computer programmes, tables, compilations and computer databases), musical work (including music as well as graphical notations), sound recording and cinematographic film.

In the case of original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, the duration of copyright is the lifetime of the author or artist, and 60 years counted from the year following the death of the author and in the case of cinematograph films, sound recordings, posthumous publications, anonymous and pseudonymous publications, works of government and works of international organizations are protected for a period of 60 years which is counted from the year following the date of first publication.

In order to keep pace with the global requirement of harmonization, the Copyright Act, 1957 has brought the copyright law in India in line with the developments in the information technology industry, whether it is in the field of satellite broadcasting or computer software or digital technology.

Registration of Copyright

In India, the registration of copyright is not mandatory as the registration is treated as mere recordal of a fact. The registration does not create or confer any new right and is not a prerequisite for initiating action against infringement. The view has been upheld by the Indian courts in a catena of judgments. Despite the fact that the registration of copyright is not mandatory in India and is protectable through the International Copyright Order, 1999, it is advisable to register the copyright as the copyright registration certificate is accepted as a "proof of ownership" in courts and by police authorities, and acted upon smoothly by them.

Enforcement of Copyright in India

Any person who uses the original work of the other person without obtaining license from the owner, infringes the copyright of the owner. The law of copyright in India not only provides for civil remedies in the form of permanent injunction, damages or accounts of profits, delivery of the infringing material for destruction and cost of the legal proceedings, etc, but also makes instances of infringement of copyright, a cognizable offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to three years, with a fine which shall not be less than INR 50,000 but may extend to INR 200,000

For the second and subsequent offences, there are provisions for enhanced fine and punishment under the Copyright Act. The (Indian) Copyright Act, 1957 gives power to the police authorities to register the Complaint (First Information Report, i.e., FIR) and act on its own to arrest the accused, search the premises of the accused and seize the infringing material without any intervention of the court.


As per the definition given under Section 2(d) of the Designs Act, 2000, "design" means only the features of shape configuration patterns or ornament applied to any article by any industrial process or means whether manual mechanical or chemical separate or combined which in the finished article appeal to and are judged solely by the eye. However, "design" does not include any mode or principle of construction or anything which is in substance a mere mechanical device and does not include any trademark as defined under the TM Act or any artistic work as defined under the Copyright Act, 1957. The total period of validity of registration of an Industrial Design under the (Indian) Designs Act, 2000 is 15 years.

Features of shape, configuration, pattern, ornament or composition of lines or colours applied to any article, whether in two dimensional or three dimensional or in both forms, can be registered under the (Indian) Designs Act, 2000. However, functionality aspects of a design are not protected under the (Indian) Designs Act, 2000, as the same are subject matter of patents.

Design of an article is not registrable in India, if it:

  • is not new or original;
  • has been disclosed to the public anywhere in India or in any other country by publication in tangible form or by use in any other way prior to the filing date or priority date of the application;
  • is not significantly distinguishable from known designs or combination of known designs; or
  • comprises or contains scandalous or obscene matter.

Enforcement of Design Rights in India

The (Indian) Designs Act, 2000, only provides for civil remedies. Besides injunction, monetary compensation is recoverable by the proprietor of the design either as contract debt or damages. An action for infringement of design can only be initiated after the registration of the design, however, an action for passing-off is maintainable in case of unregistered design.


Trade secrets includes any confidential business information which provides an enterprise a competitive edge over others. Trade secrets encompass manufacturing or industrial secrets and commercial secrets, formula, practice, process, design, instrument, pattern, commercial method, or compilation of information which is not generally known or reasonably ascertainable by other.

The unauthorized use of such information by persons other than the holder is regarded as an unfair practice and a violation of the trade secret. There are no specific statutes under the Indian law for the protection of trade secrets and the same are protectable under the common law rights.


  1. Make Intellectual Property protection a priority:

    Start-ups cannot afford the complete protection available under the intellectual property regime. The first step for any startup is to evaluate and prioritize the IP Rights involved in its business. Depending upon the type of industry involved, IP Rights play an important role. Failure to identify or prioritize IP Rights, is likely to create problems for startup's business, especially during negotiations with future investors or exiting its business. Sometimes IP Rights are the only asset available with a startup.
  2. Register Intellectual Property Rights:

    It is important to note that certain IP Rights like patents and designs are required to be registered before claiming any protection under the respective statutes. On the other hand, certain IP Rights like trademark and copyright need not be mandatorily registered for protection under. Nevertheless, a registered IP Right carries a greater value and acts as evidence of use of the IP Rights before courts as well as enforcement agencies;
  3. Due Diligence of IP Rights:

    For any startup, it is indispensable that it does not violate IP Rights of any other person. This will ensure safety from unwarranted litigation or legal action which can thwart its business activities. This makes it even more important for startups to make careful IP decisions in the initial phase and conduct proper due diligence of IP Rights, which it is using or intends to use.
  4. Implement clear and effective policies and strategies for protection of IP Rights:

    It is in the long term interest of startups to have an Intellectual Property Policy for management of various IP rights which may be presently owned, created or acquired in future by startups. The aim of such a policy is to ensure that there are no inter-se dispute between the promoters of the startups, which remains till date to be one of the main concerns for failure of startups.
  5. Agreements related to Intellectual Property:

    It is pertinent to note that having proper documentation in the form of agreements like non-disclosure agreements, agreements with employees or independent contractors, can make all the difference between the success and failure of startups. Usually, intellectual property is created either by the founders or some key employee or a third party. The intellectual property so created, must be protected through a proper agreement between the founder or key employee or a third party, as the case may be and the startup. If the agreement, with founders or employees or a third party, , under which a novel idea was/is created, is overlooked, it could create bottlenecks later after such idea becomes successful. Accordingly, the startups need to ensure that anything created on behalf of the startup, belongs to the startup and not the Employee or a third party. Further, it is advisable to enter into elaborate assignments, licensing or user agreements, and care should be taken to make provisions for all post termination IP Right issues.

© 2015, Vaish Associates Advocates,
All rights reserved
Advocates, 1st & 11th Floors, Mohan Dev Building 13, Tolstoy Marg New Delhi-110001 (India).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist professional advice should be sought about your specific circumstances. The views expressed in this article are solely of the authors of this article.

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Vinay Vaish, Partner, Vaish Associates Advocates
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