Whether you’re planning to be the next Zuckerburg or whether you are taking an existing idea and going out on your own, intellectual property and protecting your own business ideas should be a matter which you consider at the earliest stage. The simple fact is that you will start to create ideas as soon as you start your business, and others may well look to adapt and adopt these ideas as soon as you put them out in the market place.
Your logo design will form part of the identity that will set your business apart from the competition. Whilst it is unlikely that another business will directly copy your logo, another business may choose a similar logo and name, and may choose to offer a similar service or create a similar product to yours. How does a business owner deal with such situations and protect the business from “unfair competition”? How does one ensure that their work product is not going to be taken by a bigger competitor or a new start-up?
The law in this regard is set out in the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, alongside the huge volume of case law which has emanated from the Act. However, Acts of Parliament and case law do not, in practice, always help the small businessperson protect their work, product, and ideas due to the fact that navigation and understanding of the law is difficult.
This article does not offer legal advice and the comments herein should not be taken as such. However, the article does seek to offer tips to business owners as to what precautions should be taken to protect themselves and their business to the greatest extent possible.
If you create something that is new and unique you should, at the earliest opportunity, record the fact that you have done so. However, this may only help for material that can attract copyright (such as this article). For example, I can prove that I have copyright in this article as my computer will have a date stamp as to when I first drafted the article and when it was finally completed. I will also be able to create a PDF version of the completed article and save it for my records. Trademarks and Patents (inventions) are a different animal and for full protection you will need to register them.
Good examples of Trademarks are the Coca Cola or Facebook logos. Any business can register its logo (or brand) and an application should be made to the Intellectual Property Office. However, consideration should be given as to whether yours is a logo/brand which requires registration; is your business, and therefore your logo/brand, one which others may wish to copy? For example if you have created a new technology, protecting your brand will be of the utmost importance. However, if you are a new solicitors' practice, it is highly unlikely that another firm will attempt to pass themselves off as your firm, and therefore registration of the brand would be an unnecessary expense.
Patents are the most difficult areas of intellectual property to deal with, given that they seek to protect inventions. An invention could be new computer software or hardware, or a new vacuum cleaner (such as Dyson). The creation of a new computer/smart phone application will give rise to a potential patent as will the creation of a more efficient washing machine. Whether or not your invention/idea is capable of being patented is much more difficult to determine. The simple fact is that if you have an idea and have created something new, to ensure you are fully protected you will need to seek legal advice on applying for a patent. Until you have the patent, your product will be at risk.
The majority of small and start-up businesses in this country will not have intellectual property issues so as to cause huge concern to the business owners. However, there are other factors which businesses may wish to consider in relation to intellectual property. For example, if one of my members of staff writes an article for the FPG Solicitors blog or to appear in a magazine publication, who owns the copyright? The answer to that question rests on what is in the employment contract. The consideration that a business owner has to have in mind is: will my employees be undertaking work for the business which may create intellectual property? If so, business owners must act at the outset to ensure that anything done within the remit of an employee's work, and the business's work and services, must be the work product of the business and, therefore, owned by the business and not the employee.
Intellectual property is one of many areas that business owners should be conscious of both when starting a business and throughout its existence. The simple fact is that the number of potential legal issues which business owners need to be aware of are vast. Whilst prevention is always better than the cure, it is a minefield out there and business owners must be aware of all the potential issues and pitfalls.