Starting a new business means generating a large volume of intellectual property (IP). While many business owners understand the basics, there are several potential missteps that can be made at this early stage that can harm a company’s future. IP assets include those related to a business’ brand, like its name and logo – failing to protect these can devalue the brand, lead to legal disputes, or force you to rebrand and potentially lose your relationships with your customers.

As such, it is crucial to learn which business assets are considered ‘intellectual property’, how a company can protect these assets, the eligibility criteria you must meet, and what these legal safeguards allow you to do. There are three primary types of IP protection from which businesses in the UK can benefit: trade marks, patents and copyright. Each category applies to a different type of asset, and all three are relevant for start-up businesses, no matter what industry they are operating in.

Here, JMW Solicitors’ expert intellectual property team offers advice on what start-ups need to understand about securing and protecting intellectual property assets, and how they can mobilise this legal protection to develop a strong brand identity and build relationships with customers.

Trade marks

Trade marks primarily safeguard brand elements, such as company names and logos, product names and packaging designs, taglines, jingles and other brand features. You need to register these elements as trade marks to benefit from protection, and if your business intends to trade overseas, you will need to register in each new jurisdiction.

Registering these assets grants you the exclusive rights to use them to identify and market your goods or services, and to take action against any competitors who imitate these elements – whether to mislead your customers or to damage your reputation. This is a risk for start-ups that are competing with larger companies with more resources.

For an asset to qualify as a registered trade mark, it must be unique to you in your industry. This does not mean that it must be completely unique – only that a similar asset is not already owned by another person or business in the categories in which you intend to trade.

Trade mark categories cover various types of products and industries, and you must identify the products or services for which you want to use your IP assets when you register. This means that your business can have a similar name to another one, provided it works in a different industry and does not own a trade mark in the categories in which you want to register.

This can be complicated. It is important to check when developing brand assets for a start-up that your brand elements are not already registered trade marks owned by someone else. You can do this by looking at the government’s trade mark database, or by working with an experienced intellectual property solicitor. During the brand development phase, this can also help to make sure you do not inadvertently infringe on the trade mark of a more established business. This can be tempting for a start-up as making a reference to an existing company often acts as a short-hand to tell customers what you do. However, this can also prevent you from building a sustainable brand.

Patents

Patents protect inventions and improvements to existing processes or products. If your business intends to market an innovation you have developed, it is vital to register the relevant asset for patent protection at the earliest opportunity. All of the same restrictions that apply to trade marks apply to patents: they must be unique and not overlap with any existing registrations, and they must be registered in each new jurisdiction. Registering an asset gives you the exclusive right to use and sell it for a period of up to 20 years, in most cases. A common question we get asked is ‘can you patent a website?‘.

Copyright

Copyright applies to written, audio and visual works. This includes books, images, videos and audio recordings, but also any software you develop, databases you create, and content you produce for your business – such as product descriptions and photographs, or copy for your website. Many businesses overlook copyright because they do not sell media products, but in fact, there are a lot of opportunities for infringement here and companies, especially start-ups, need to take care. Copyright applies automatically, so the only step you need to take to protect your work is to monitor for infringement by others.

How can start-ups protect themselves?

IP should be a consideration even before you have started your business, while you are still in the process of developing your brand and the assets you need. In this way, you can make sure that any elements of your brand identity are unique to you, which means that they will be eligible for trademark protection.

An expert intellectual property solicitor can help you with this, by performing searching and clearing services during your branding phase. They can advise you on the features your assets need to qualify for protection, identify assets that might qualify for protection that you haven’t considered, help you to manage your IP portfolio and support you through registering your assets.

Another important step once you have registered your assets for protection is to monitor the activities of your competitors. That can help you to quickly detect infringement and take action to prevent it. A solicitor may even provide training to help your employees recognise infringement and further secure your business’ assets. This will enable you to build a strong, recognisable brand without the risk of damage or imitation by competitors, and have the best chance of success in growing your new business.

The Article is Written by Philip Partington, Partner, Intellectual Property, JMW Solicitors with editing from Start Smarter.

Enter your email address for FREE tips, offers and freebies straight to your inbox.