Starting a new business is a thrilling experience – your ideas, inventions, and brand are about to be unleashed upon the world! Before sharing it all, though, it is vital that you ensure that it is all properly protected. Continuing from my article last week, here's more about what you need to know about intellectual property.
As hard as it may be to believe in this day and age, patents aren’t clubs just for multinational tech giants to beat each other with! All inventors should use patents to protect their inventions. Patents provide protection for UK inventions through applications made via the UK Intellectual Property Office. The filing date of the claim (date of receipt by the IPO) is paramount because this becomes the priority date for both for the UK and international patent purposes. A description, drawings, patent claims and a preliminary search fee should be sent to the IPO within twelve months of the initial application, who should then publish the specification. Within six months of this process, upon payment of an examination fee, the Patent office conducts a detailed examination along with an opportunity for the owner to amend the application or make comments on the findings. If all is in order and satisfies requirements, the IPO grants a patent for the invention. Good patent protection, implemented in time will help to protect any invention from being copied and ensure the true and rightful owner of the idea is recognised as such. Once you own a patent for a product it is your responsibility to monitor for anyone who might be infringing that patent and report these infringements. All products with a patent or patent pending should also be clearly marked as such.
It is quite likely that in many situations, you may need or want to deal with other parties before your patent is in place. It is crucial that you keep your invention secret during this time. One of the biggest mistakes would-be patentees make is revealing their invention before applying for a patent and this can prevent the invention from being patented successfully. If you do need to share your invention with someone else before making your application, ensure that you have a confidentiality agreement (also known as a non-disclosure agreement) in place to protect the secrecy of your invention. More detail can be found on these vital agreements below. Needless to say, once your patent is in place, you are free to deal with it just as you would any other IP asset, sharing it under a licence or assigning it to another party.
One more thing: of all the intellectual property rights available, patents can be by far the most complex and confusing. It is strongly recommended that you engage the services of a professional to handle your dealings with the IPO.
Whilst the function, operation, manufacture or construction of a product may be protected by a patent, its outward appearance may be protectable by design protection. Registered designs can be very useful when protecting aspects of a design including its shape, texture, packaging, typography, and other symbols. Copyright and unregistered designs will get you a long way, but if the physical design of your product and/or its packaging represent a significant aspect of its value, it is a good idea to consider registering it. As with trademarks and patents, the UK IPO is your one-stop shop for registration.
As with patents, originality is important. If you must share your design with outside parties before applying to register it, it is a good idea to protect it with a confidentiality agreement to ensure that it doesn’t leak before you’re ready.
Confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements
By far the biggest mistake entrepreneurs and inventors make is sharing ideas, designs and other concepts with third parties without protecting them, and working with consultants to help develop ideas without making their terms of contract clear.
Confidentiality agreements, and crucial clauses in employee, consultant and supplier contracts are paramount to prevent ideas, designs, content, and brands from being copied and rendered worthless without this protection. At best, you stand to lose your first-to-market advantage. At worst, you stand to jeopardise your prospects with investors and may be unable to register your IP. Third parties such as manufacturers and designers who may be privy to your ideas must sign confidentiality agreements or non-disclosure agreements, which detail and protect the confidential information to which they apply, to the maximum extent possible while allowing the receiving party to use the information to the extent required to fulfil business obligations – such as manufacture, design or business consulting in confidence.
All of these documents and protections should be sought as early as possible, as any unprotected period or communication leaves you vulnerable. In a creative economy, it is extremely important to ensure that ‘Eureka’ moment, stays yours, and only yours, until you are ready to reap the benefit and drive it forward with investment.
By Iain Mackintosh, founder and owner of Simply Docs