When someone steals a piece of your intellectual property (IP), it can have a strong negative impact on your business. Whether it is another company creating copycat versions of your products, a competitor imitating your logo or slogan, or a business passing off their products as yours using a similar packaging design, intellectual property infringement can result in financial losses, customer attrition, and even damage to your business’ reputation.
However, it sometimes takes experience and expertise to determine whether an infringement has occurred, and what options are available to you to try to fix the problem. Here, Stephen Newman of Ramsdens Solicitors explains the steps businesses can take to protect their IP and how they should respond if their rights have been infringed.
Protecting IP rights
The first thing businesses should consider is whether to protect their intangible assets by registering them with an authority like the UK’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO). Your intangible assets can be anything from your company name or logo, to a slogan, product description, packaging design, or even an innovative idea. In most cases, these can be protected by trademarks, copyright, or patents, depending on the nature of the asset.
Briefly, trademarks protect words, phrases, shapes, colors, and slogans – any elements that could be associated with your brand by the public. Copyright applies to longer works like pieces of writing, music, or video, and will include product descriptions and other content from your company’s website. You do not need to register for copyright protection in the UK – it applies automatically – but you may need to do so in other jurisdictions. Patents protect new inventions or designs but a description of how the product works must be included with the registration.
If you are unsure, it can be valuable to speak to a solicitor to determine what types of assets are eligible for registration and protection. There are many aspects to a trademark or patent application that can make the process difficult and result in the application being rejected. Many inventors feel that patent protection is a waste of time and money.
Once your assets are registered with the IPO, you will have a greater level of legal protection that can enable you to pursue legal action against any parties that infringe upon your rights. Registering a patent, however, will force you to disclose information that you might prefer to keep confidential.
Unregistered intellectual property
One type of intellectual property infringement is ‘passing off’, which refers to efforts by other companies to represent their goods as yours. Businesses have a common law right to prevent passing off and this is frequently used to defend unregistered trademarks from infringement. Your success in these cases will depend on a number of factors, including how long you have been using the trademark and how strongly it is associated with your brand by consumers.
Defending your rights
If a company infringes on a trademark or patent you own, or makes unauthorized use of copyrighted material, you can respond by pursuing legal action against them. This may include filing an injunction to prevent them from trading using the mark or selling any infringing products.
It is important to contact a solicitor before making any decisions in this area, as some actions you may take at this early stage can harm your case. The same is true if you receive a letter accusing you of infringing on someone else’s intellectual property rights – it is imperative that you consult legal advice before responding.
Once you own a trademark, you may also be contacted by the IPO if another business files an application that is similar to your IP. You will have an opportunity to respond and can object to someone else’s application if you feel that it infringes yours, although this may eventually need to be defended in court.
Often, companies do not understand the value or the scope of their IP until their rights have been infringed. It is always best to take stock of your business’s intangible assets and protect them in the appropriate manner, to avoid the legal difficulties that might arise should you fail to do so.