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Your guide to SME intellectual property

Intellectual property is an important part of small businesses – for some it can be their whole business – so protecting it is important.

What is intellectual property?
Simply put, it’s an idea that you own and make money from.

These are split into four categories for legal purposes – trademarks, copyright, designs and patents. They can be anything from a company logo or blog, to schematics for a new machine, code for an app and even a song.

How do they work?
Intellectual property – or IP – is owned by the original creator or, if an agreement has been made to transfer or sell the rights, the new owner. This means they can only be used by that person to make money – any unauthorised use is referred to as infringement.

IPs can be leased out to other people for a fee, such as software packages. They can be licensed out exclusively to a single third party, or non-exclusively to whoever is willing to pay to use it.

The four types
Each of the four types of intellectual property has slightly different definitions and rules.

Trademark
These tend to be related to a brand’s identity such as logos, packaging designs, key advertising phrases and even company colours.

Unregistered trademarks are protected under civil law, while trademarks registered with the Intellectual Property Office are provided with stronger rights over usage.

Registered trademarks will be provided with a number and added to the government’s searchable database.

Copyright
Creative works like books, songs, art, web content, design and photography are protected by copyright. The creators of such works are automatically protected by copyright – it does not need to be registered to prevent others from using it.

Unlike trademarks, which can be renewed constantly, copyright has a limited life span. Literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works are protected for the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. For sound recordings and broadcast, there is a 50 year copyright period from first broadcast or creation.

Designs
These can relate to anything from machinery and furniture to patterns and clothing. Like copyright, these are automatically protected from the moment of creation. But design rights have much shorter lifespans, with 2D designs protected for just 3 years and 3D designs protected for 15 years.

These can be registered with the IPO to extend the period up to 25 years and provide better protection.

Patents
Any invention created is protected by patents. But these must be registered and approved by the IPO before they are protected. There are a few hurdles to pass before it is registered. It must be:

• something that can be made or used
• new
• inventive – not just a modification to something already existing

The patent process can be expensive, complicated and lengthy. Just 1 in 20 applicants get a patent without professional help, which typically costs £4,000. It can take up to 5 years to get approval. So it’s worth checking if you need one before registering. They protect your invention for 20 years.

For more information, visit the Intellectual Property Office.