When you leave the office at night, you always lock the door. But too many business owners fail to take a similar degree of caution with their designs, ideas, and valuable company information – the company’s intellectual property (IP) – and leave themselves at risk of theft and counterfeiting. But new changes to the law should strengthen the protection of designs in the UK, and the introduction of simpler patenting processes will make it easier for SMEs to look after their IP and intangible assets.
What the new rules mean
On October 1, the Intellectual Property Act 2014 came into effect, updating the Patents Act of 1977, with changes intended to update the law and simplify the design rights system for people and businesses. The amendments include:
- Changes to copyright law, allowing ‘limited, reasonable use’ of copyrighted photos, songs, films, and artwork for the purpose of pastiche without getting the permission of the copyright holder. This could include so-called mash-ups of popular images or songs that are increasingly popular online.
- Changes to design laws, which now make the intentional copying of a registered design a criminal offence. This means small firms whose product designs are stolen and manufactured by others will be able to pursue a legal claim.
- Design legislation amendments also mean that when a business commissions a third party to draw up a design it is owned by the designer, unless otherwise agreed. This could create problems for small firms that don’t take the necessary precautions at the outset, so they should agree in writing who owns a design during the commissioning process.
- Patent law changes mean that the owners of patents will now be able to include a website address on protected or patent pending products. This simplifies the system, as previously patent owners would have to provide the patent number and country of patent.
Identify your intellectual property
One of the reasons that so many small businesses leave themselves exposed to the theft of their ideas is because they struggle to identify exactly what their IP is. Consider the intangible assets that your business has that make it distinctive. It could be your logo, the shape of your packaging or the colours used, a brand name, product plans, inventions, or confidential information that is essential to the running of the enterprise. These qualify as your intellectual property, and they are just as – if not more – valuable to your company than the physical belongings and assets that most people protect so carefully.
The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) has a free online IP health check that SMEs can use to determine whether they need to license any of their work, and it will also help them to learn more about protecting their confidential information and trade secrets. A business gives the IPO the relevant details, and then receives a report outlining where their IP protection is lacking, or if they are in breach of someone else’s designs. The IPO also publishes a series of IP health check booklets and online toolkits offering further guidance on identifying and protecting intellectual assets.
Get help to find the right protection
Once you have an idea of what’s valuable to your business, set about protecting it. If it’s a 3D design – say, for a piece of furniture, specialist packaging, or an architectural widget – you need to register a design right, which is relatively easy and inexpensive to do. It costs £60 to apply to register a design, and can take up to three months to process.
Patents tend to be more complicated, costly, and time-consuming to register, so it may be worth seeking the advice of a professional IP expert. In fact, outside advice can be very helpful in any IP-related matter, and there are a number of places to go for guidance. The IPO advises SMEs on finding help with IP and design issues, and recommends the Design Council, Passport to Export through UKTI, and the Manufacturing Advisory Service. Entrepreneurs can also get IP information from a number of other useful sources:
- Members of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) and the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys (ITMA) hold regular free clinics around the country for SMEs with early stage ideas. More information about these events is available through the CIPA and ITMA
- The PatLib Centres are a network of UK-wide patent libraries, which can offer help with patent searches, business advice, and clinics with IP experts.
- The British Library has its own Business and Intellectual Property Centre based at its main building in central London. It offers workshops, one-to-one clinics, and even has both an in-house inventor and IP attorney on hand.
Watch the competition – and enforce the law
It’s not enough to do your IP checks just once. Even when you’ve registered your designs and patents, you should keep an eye what is happening in the wider world to see whether anyone is stepping on your business’s toes or flagrantly infringing your rights. You are the person who will have to enforce your ownership of a design or idea, so monitor other registrations to keep up-to-date. You could opt to use IP software to do this, or employ the services of specialist IP scanning companies.
Unlucky small firms that discover someone has ripped off or stolen their designs or ideas can turn to the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court, formerly the Patents Court. This has a small claims track for uncomplicated cases with claims of no more than £10,000. It has also streamlined its processes to make it cheaper and easier for SMEs and individuals to take legal action, and introduced a fixed scale of recoverable costs capped at £50,000, and a limit on damages claimed of £500,000.
However, the IPO experts advise that business owners take advice from an IPO Senior Patent Examiner about whether they have a claim before pursuing the legal route. They will give an opinion for a standard fee of £200, and deliver their conclusion within 12 weeks. Alternatively, the IPO also offers a mediation service to help opposing parties resolve an IP dispute without the cost and upset of going to court.
Worrying about the intangible elements of your business may seem like a hassle when you’re preoccupied with day-to-day matters. But, just as you wouldn’t leave your front door open, don’t neglect your designs and trade secrets, and make them vulnerable to opportunistic thieves and counterfeiters. Hope and blind faith are no protection at all. The law is. And it just got easier to get the protection your business needs.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net