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Business management

10 ways to protect your intellectual property: a guide for small businesses

Handled correctly, safeguards such as trademarks and patents can give your business a competitive edge; neglecting them can give the advantage to your competitors. 

In contrast, protecting your IP from the outset can not only protect your income, but also open up new revenue streams.

“Every business fundamentally starts and grows from its IP,” says Merlie Calvert, founder of Farillio, a legal platform that aims to make law easier and more accessible for start-ups and small businesses. “Knowing what you’ve got and how it’s evolving is vital to the value that you create – and you can lever that to your financial benefit as your business grows.”

She notes that while IP protection generally doesn’t cost a lot, failing to spend on protection in the early days can end up costing you in terms of wasted spending and lost business opportunities.

Nick Coleman, CEO and founder of food and drink business Snaffling Pig, has experienced just this. The company originally launched as Giggling Pig in 2014 but had its logo image and name challenged by a competitor and had to completely rebrand. “When we originally launched as Giggling Pig, we didn’t really think about the implication of having a trademark,” says Coleman. “This is why, when we chose the name, we had issues in protecting it and had to redo all our packaging and basically start the brand all over again. But as we were young as a business – this was in year two – it didn’t really matter that much. Had it been further down the line, it could’ve been very damaging.

“I would encourage any brand to ensure, the moment they’ve made any headway, that they protect their name, logo and brand assets as quickly as possible. Continue to review on an annual basis to make sure you’re always protected. The value of your brand only exists if you can protect it, so it’s important that careful consideration and resource is spent protecting your most valuable asset.”

The value of your brand only exists if you can protect it, so it’s important that careful consideration and resource is spent protecting your most valuable asset

Nick Coleman
CEO and founder, Snaffling Pig

Protecting your IP can also make your company more attractive to investors and buyers, says Jacqueline Watts, head of company and commercial at London-based A City Law Firm. “Registered IP shows a potential investor the value of your company, offers them comfort in what they’re investing in and can act as a collateral for their monies,” she says. “On the other hand, if you want to sell your business, then registering and valuing your IP increases the value of your company and increases your chances of a successful sale.”

IP: 10 ways to protect it
  1. “If your IP is registerable, including design rights (such as the look of your product/ bespoke packaging, designs) and trademarks (something used in the course of trade including your trading name, logo, slogan, even domain name) then we would highly recommend you take steps to register it,” says Watts. “We recommend that proper searches are conducted to ensure that you’re fully aware of possible objectors.”
  2. “For brand protection, registering a trademark with the UK Intellectual Property Office [IPO] is the first step,” says Robert Fahrenheim, head of intellectual property at litigation funder Augusta Ventures. “This ensures brand elements, such as names or logos for a product or service, are protected and means that another party may be prevented from using the same or very similar marks. This process is relatively inexpensive and can be done online. A key tip is to think carefully about the relevant classes and specifications you want the trademark to be registered for.”
  3. Obtaining patents to protect new ideas and inventions is highly valuable – or in some cases crucial – and can be the key factor in a business maintaining a competitive advantage in a market. “Until a patent application is made, it’s essential that the idea is kept secret, or it will be deemed to have become public knowledge and therefore will not be patentable,” says Fahrenheim.
  4. Trade secrets are an often-forgotten area of IP. Be sure to protect these. “A tip here is to ensure information shared with another party is expressly described as confidential and ideally protected by a written contract, such as a non-disclosure agreement,” Fahrenheim says.
  5. Keep clear records of what you’ve created, and when. “This is important in the case of copyrighted material – a great tip here is to email copies of recordings, photos and so on to yourself and save those emails somewhere safe,” says Calvert.
  6. Pay attention to confidentiality. “Think carefully about what’s confidential to your business: you might have special processes or practices, for example, that you wouldn’t want a competitor to know, or someone working with you to take away so they can start up their own business in competition with you,” says Calvert.
  7. Ensure that you properly own all IP that has been created for you. “Often branding agencies and website designers only licence you the right to use the IP in their designs or software and do not actually transfer the ownership rights,” says Watts. “If you’ve hired someone to create your IP, have an agreement in place. This should assign full ownership to you upon completion as this does not automatically transfer to you.”
  8. Protect IP created by your employees. “If your own employees create the IP during their employment, this will usually automatically be your property, but you should ensure these provisions are outlined in their employment contracts for added protection, especially if they may be doing something outside of working hours or the workplace,” says Watts.
  9. You can permit someone else to use your IP and pay for this right. “It’s a super way to market-test demand, or enter new markets, making additional profit without you having to give anything up, or be distracted from what you’re already doing,” says Calvert. “Collaborations with other businesses open up from these kinds of activities too. You might even consider franchising – another way to make people pay for using your IP while you scale, and it can manage growth costs and many risks inherent in that growth quite neatly. Distributing and exporting using agents or distributors, for example, is something else you can consider as potentially very lucrative.”
  10. If your rights have been infringed, seek advice from an IP lawyer as soon as possible. “Don’t be put off by the perception that their advice is costly,” says Fahrenheim. “If you have a valid claim, there are often options available such as litigation funding, which can cover all of the costs of enforcing or defending your rights and getting back any money that you may be entitled to.”

This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of the NatWest Group Economics Department, as of this date and are subject to change without notice.

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