UK: What Should Start-Ups Be Doing To Protect IP?

Thursday 26th April marked World Intellectual Property Day, an annual celebration and acknowledgement of the role that intellectual property (IP) rights, which include patents, trademarks, industrial designs and copyright, play in encouraging innovation and creativity in businesses around the world. Innovation and creativity often play a vital role in both the launch and continued success of any new business, therefore it is important for owners of start-ups to carefully consider how a robust IP strategy will help to safeguard the commercial proposition and future growth of their business.

What is Intellectual Property (IP)?

IP is not generally a widely understood term but is one that is increasingly brought to the fore, courtesy of high profile cases such as that of global chicken restaurant Nando's, which accused an independent restaurant named Fernando's of IP infringement through the replication of its name and images. More recently, the European Court of Justice ruled that the iconic shape of KitKat's four-finger chocolate bar is not globally distinctive enough to retain its EU-wide protected trademark status, meaning that it will lose this form of IP protection. IP is even playing into international relations, with the US announcing sanctions against China on account of China breaching US intellectual property.

As you can see from the above cases, depending upon the product or service your business is providing, you might consider trade marks, patents or design protection or a combination of all three. IP protection can mean the difference between making money from an invention, design or brand or losing out altogether, demonstrated in the case of Alexander Graham Bell, who famously patented his telephone model just hours before a rival inventor. Bell, as a result, changed history and has since been lauded for his invention while his competitor remained in the shadows.

Why is IP important for start-ups?

When starting any business there are many factors to consider, from branding and target markets to raising finance and appointing suitable people. One part of the business challenge is considering IP protection. An effective IP strategy can make the difference between business success and business failure.

Whilst some SMEs may not put IP at the top of their list of priorities when starting out, ensuring these measures are in place early on in the business journey will prevent a headache further down the line. Some businesses may not think they have any ideas to protect, however this is rarely the case and consulting an appropriate organisation for advice is a good place to start.

Every business that uses a name, brand or logo should be considering trade mark protection. SMEs creating products that have a unique design should be considering registered design protection. Where a business is innovating new products or processes, patent protection may be the route to go down.

IP and your business journey

The best time to consider IP protection is before a business is launched. This is most noticeably the case with patents, as demonstrated by the case of Alexander Graham Bell's competitor. With trade marks and logos, considering IP early on will help ensure that you are not accidently infringing on another business' existing trademark, and prevent other businesses infringing on your trademark.

Design applications can be filed within 12 months of your design going to market, but it is normally safer to apply for registration beforehand, especially if you may need to seek protection outside of the EU. However, for patents, it is critical that an application is on file before any kind of public disclosure, written or verbal.

Seek guidance from experts

A vast pool of information, guidance and support is available for start-ups and SMEs. For instance, the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) provides free training, case studies, short guides and even an online IP health check to get you started, and to recommend what type of IP is most suitable for your business needs. The UKIPO can also point you in the right direction of a local patent or trade mark attorney who can offer professional advice.

Silence can be golden on the path to IP

However excited you may be to shout about your innovative new product or service, it is incredibly important to keep quiet until the correct IP protection is arranged. It would be highly frustrating to lose your unique business idea to opportunistic competitors. Remember, even verbal disclosure could lose you your business success.

Be proactive and persevere

Don't wait until a competitor copies your idea, you inadvertently infringe someone else's IP, or it is too late to file an application. Developing a robust IP strategy does not need to be complicated. Your ideas will often be the lifeblood of your new business, so investing time and money in a strong IP strategy as early as possible in your business journey is very important. You never know, you may have more worth protecting than you first thought.

This article first appeared at

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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