How smaller businesses can protect their intellectual property

Intellectual property (IP) is the term used to describe something you create using your mind, such as inventions, artistic works, product names, and symbols.

Most businesses are likely to own some IP.

Intangible IP assets are valuable and often crucial to the commercial success of a business.

Data from the Office for National Statistics found investment in intangible IP assets was £134.5bn in 2020, only slightly behind investment in tangible assets at £137bn.

The largest capitalised IP intangible asset was Research and development, accounting for £24.5bn of investment.

Protecting your IP assets so you retain exclusive ownership where possible can be an important thing to do and by using legal rights like copyright, trade markets and patents, you can stop other companies from copying or stealing your ideas, products, or services.

What is intellectual property?

The World Intellectual Property Organization describes intellectual property as "creations of the mind".

This means intangible property created using intellect by organisations and individuals such as artists, poets, creators, writers, and businesses.

It is not the ideas that are considered IP but rather what results from them, such as a product or service.

For businesses, IP is wide-ranging. Examples may include:

  • inventions
  • product prototypes
  • product and brand names
  • logos and symbols
  • slogans and tagliness and symbols
  • software and digital platforms
  • designs
  • books and articles
  • photography
  • shape and appearance of a product.

What are the benefits of protecting IP?

Intellectual property is a valuable asset that could be vital to the growth of your business, securing investment, and the commercial success of your products or services.

As a result, it’s worth considering protecting them.

Securing your IP rights brings many advantages, including:

Preventing competitors from stealing your IP

If a competitor copies your IP, such as using your logo or brand name, it can damage your business, leading to lost customers and reduced market share.

Protecting IP is vital for companies at an early stage, too.

If someone steals your idea, they could launch a product or service before you do.

Without legal protection of your IP, it will be much harder to prevent.

Turning an idea into a profitable business

Entrepreneurs can use IP to transform what is just an idea into a successful product or service.

You can also license patents, trade marks, and copyright to generate additional income through regular royalties.

Raising funding

If you need to raise finance for your business, you can monetise your IP by selling it, licensing it, or using it as collateral for debt funding.

IP assets can also be used to attract investors and when applying for public sector grants and loans.

Marketing to customers

IP protection can help your business to stand out and attract new customers.

Trade marks, patents, and registered designs communicate origin, quality, and value.

You can use them to differentiate your products or services from competitors.

Boosting export opportunities

If you expand your business abroad, you can use protected IP assets to promote your products or services in other countries.

Overseas patents for your IP assets open up opportunities to launch in new markets.

Accessing tax reliefs

The government launched the Patent Box to encourage companies to keep and commercialise intellectual property in the UK.

It allows limited companies to pay a reduced 10% rate of Corporation Tax on profits earned from patented inventions.

How to protect IP

There are various ways to protect your IP.

Some are automatic, while others need to be applied for.

Automatic and unregistered protections are limited, and the Intellectual Property Office advises that it's easier to prove you own intellectual property if registered legally.

Original artistic work such as writing, art, music, software, films, and computer games are automatically protected through copyright from the point they are first published.

It means someone cannot copy, use, and distribute the work without the creator's permission.

Copyright protection lasts until 70 years after the death of the original creator.

A trade mark protects the assets a company uses to identify its products or services, such as a name, logo, slogan and jingle.

Trade marks take four months to apply for.

A patent gives you exclusive rights to inventions that are new, inventive, and something that can be made or used.

Patents can be difficult and expensive to secure.

They cost several thousand pounds and can take around five years to obtain.

You will likely need the help of a patent attorney or another IP expert to tackle the complicated application process.

Design rights automatically protect the shape and configuration of 3-dimensional objects 15 years after they were created or ten years after they were first sold, whichever is the earliest.

Greater protection can be secured by registering a design.

Applying for a registered design takes three weeks.

You can find more information about protecting your IP on the Intellectual Property Office website and at British Library Business and IP Centres in libraries around the UK.

Reference to any organisation, business and event on this page does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation from the British Business Bank or the UK Government. Whilst we make reasonable efforts to keep the information on this page up to date, we do not guarantee or warrant (implied or otherwise) that it is current, accurate or complete. The information is intended for general information purposes only and does not take into account your personal situation, nor does it constitute legal, financial, tax or other professional advice. You should always consider whether the information is applicable to your particular circumstances and, where appropriate, seek professional or specialist advice or support.

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