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In 2015, there were 5.4 million SMEs in the UK. Yet in that year, a report from the European Intellectual Property Office (EIPO), Intellectual Property Rights and Firm Performance in Europe: an Economic Analysis found that only 9% of European small businesses had registered their Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).

This discovery led them to look more in depth at the cause of this low take up.

Why do SMEs not protect their IPR?

The EIPO’s resulting report, Intellectual Property (IP) SME Scoreboard 2016, revealed that SMEs hadn’t registered their IPR because:

Yet 1 in 3 SMEs said they had suffered from infringement problems—and the report found the majority of companies that chose IPR registration reported ‘positive effects like increased reputation or image of reliability, strengthening of long-term business prospects and increased turnover.’

Checklist: do you have any intellectual property?

You may not think you have any intellectual property to protect, believing intellectual property is only concerned with things you’ve invented or designed.

However, intellectual property isn’t always as ‘intellectual’ as it sounds and you don’t have to have invented a scientific marvel to have intellectual property. It also covers the names of your products or brands, the design or look of your products and certain things you make or produce.

It’s worth remembering that an idea, of itself, can’t be intellectual property. To be your intellectual property, something must have:

As you can see, intellectual property can be sold or transferred. It can also belong to one person, more than one person or a business. But what intellectual property is most worthy of protection?

The EIPO’s report found that protecting internet domain names, confidentiality (trade secrets) and trademarks were the top three measures that SMEs reported as important to their ability to gain competitive advantage from their innovative activities. The protecting of internet domain names was the most important kind of protection measure for all SMEs, regardless of size.

So let’s look at the types of protection available for your intellectual property.

Automatic protection (no application process or fee).

Copyright: protects your work and stops others from copying, renting, lending, performing, showing, playing, or adapting your work physically or on the internet. You automatically get copyright protection when you create:

You can mark your work with the copyright symbol ©, your name and the year of creation, but your work is protected with or without this. Your work could be protected by copyright in other countries through international agreements, e.g. the Berne Convention. In most countries copyright lasts a minimum of life plus 50 years for most written, dramatic and artistic works, and at least 25 years for photographs. It can vary for other types of work.

Design right: automatically protects your design for 10 years after it was first sold or 15 years after it was created, whichever is earliest, and can be used to stop someone copying your design.

Design right only applies to the shape and configuration (how different parts of a design are arranged together) of objects. The design must be new, not offensive, not make use of protected emblems or flags (e.g. the Olympic rings or the Royal Crown) and not be an invention or how a product works (this requires a patent instead).

You’ll need proof of when you created a design if you want to claim design right. One way is to get signed and dated copies of your design drawings or photos certified and kept by a solicitor or intellectual property attorney.

However, if you want to protect 2-dimensional designs such as graphics, textiles and wallpaper, you must register your design (see below).

Protection that must be applied for

Trademarks: Product names, logos, jingles. Allow 4 months for application. Find out more here; fees start from £170, but depend on how you apply and whether you use the Right Start service to check if your application meets the registration rules.

Registered designs: Appearance of a product including, shape, packaging, patterns, colours, decoration. Allow 1 month for application. You can find out more here; fees start at £50 for one design, but you may want to pay for the IPO’s services to check your design is unique (£24).

Patents: Inventions and products, e.g. machines and machine parts, tools, medicines. Allow around 5 years for them to be processed, and expect it to be a difficult and expensive process. To be granted a patent, your invention must be all something new that can be made or used, and inventive—not just a simple modification to something that already exists.

You can’t patent literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works; a way of doing business, playing a game or thinking; a method of medical treatment or diagnosis; a discovery, scientific theory or mathematical method; the way information is presented; some computer programs or mobile apps; and ‘essentially biological’ processes like crossing-breeding plants, and plant or animal varieties.

Remember, more than one type of protection can be linked to a single product, e.g. you could:

Advice and financial help

While registering IPR may not always be easy or cheap, there may be help available from the following resources:

The Government’s guidance on seeking intellectual property advice is a great place to start for general advice on IPR which signposts you to a wealth of other sources and videos. You could also visit the sites of:

If you think you have intellectual property that qualifies for protection, it’s in your best interests to do your research and protect it if you can. Your USP may not be as much of a Selling Point if it ceases to be Unique.

Are you looking to protect your intellectual property? Have you ever been caught out by not doing so? Let us know your thoughts.

About The Author

Karl Bilby

We work very closely with our expert accountants to bring you the latest factually correct tax and accounting news. We also enjoy writing about small business news that we hope you find useful!

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