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What is Intellectual Property and Why Does it Matter to You?

What is Intellectual Property and Why Does it Matter to You?Every business will have intellectual property to protect, although the actions to take will be very different depending on the business and the intellectual property involved.

Say you’ve invented some innovative way to solve a problem that no one else has managed to solve. In the case of Anywayup cup it was a baby cup with an innovative lid that didn’t spill. For C-Pen it was a pen that scans the text of a document directly to your computer. A patent is available in both these situations to protect your investment.  Arguably, for product-based inventions a patent is essential because it gives you a legal monopoly in the invention. The patent, if well drafted, makes it difficult for others to copy your invention. Without patent protection well-resourced manufacturers could enter the same market once they realise you are onto something, and use their greater financial muscle to produce and publicise a similar offering.

Then suppose you have selected the perfect name for your invention and had a logo developed for it with an attractive design. How would you feel if you were to find out after spending time and resources promoting the name, that it couldn’t be exclusive to you because the name is incapable of functioning as a trademark? This is what happened to Tesco’s Clubcard. The name it chose for its loyalty program has proved impossible to protect. If this was you, wouldn’t you prefer to know about it in advance, so you could make a better choice? Or, say you find that the name is not legally available and you then lose everything overnight when a trade mark owner is able to put a stop to your continued use of your name? This is what happened to Scrabulous whose business on Facebook went up in a puff of smoke. And did you know that if you don’t take the right actions in relation to your logo, you could find yourself on the wrong end of a dispute as happened to Innocent who at one point lost the right to use their iconic logo. Would you have the resources to appeal such a decision as they did? These are just some examples of what can happen when you don’t get timely IP advice.

Every business has IP issues to consider because every business has a name, a logo, a website, a database of contacts and more. These are all intangible assets which are important to the success of a business.

What is IP?

IP is the collective name for the rights that protect creativity, imagination and ideas. It’s very wide ranging and the rules are often complex.

Trademarks identify your products or services, secure exclusive rights over the name of your business and contain the value of your brand. With the right name you can stop competitors stealing business away from you. Copyright is another essential intellectual property right. Every business uses copyright works because every business is likely to have a logo, website, brochures, photographs, packaging, software etc. Design protection is another type of IP right which is often overlooked. However, it is a powerful tool for protecting your market share and preventing competitors from copying your ideas.

 

 

The Benefits of Protecting Your Intellectual Property

Strategic decisions about IP should be made early in the business so as to make good choices of IP, and determine how best to protect yourself with your available resources.

IP presents both risks and opportunities. Used wisely, IP advice and protection

  • increases the value of your business,
  • helps grow your profit margins,
  • creates income streams,
  • attracts finance,
  • protects your market share,
  • prevents competitors from copying your ideas,
  • reduces future risks and liability (including personal liability of directors),
  • protects the effort you put into your business, and
  • gives you a legal monopoly.

Common IP Mistakes

A common mistake is to assume that IP advice is just needed if a business has a potential patent or trade mark to register. In the digital economy IP support is needed for every business.

Another error we often see, is businesses simply registering their trademark without doing any due diligence searches. It’s important to note that a trademark registration can be cancelled if someone else has better rights to the name. This is what happened to Microsoft who had registered Skydrive as a trademark only to have its use of the name challenged. Rebranding to Onedrive cost millions. Not every business has the resources of Microsoft to shoulder the costs that a rebrand invariably involves.

Some business owners justify ignoring IP on the grounds that they don’t have the resources to litigate. They wonder what is the point of protecting their IP. You’re actually much more likely to get into a dispute if you don’t register your rights than if you do. Owning registered IP rights can be a very useful bargaining tool if you find yourself threatened by a competitor. Unfortunately disputes relating to intellectual property may arise when your business has taken off and your IP has acquired value. Not protecting it could lay yourself wide open. So don’t expose yourself to litigation by not taking some basic steps to protect yourself.

How To Protect Your Intellectual Property?

IP help is important when you’re deciding how to implement your idea because the choices you make when bringing your ideas to life are all IP decisions. By consulting an IP lawyer at that early stage you are much better placed to make effective choices, and reduce the likelihood of having to undo ill considered decisions later on.Taking a holistic approach to IP is crucial.

We are well placed to help you to take control of your intellectual property so your business can flourish from a secure foundation. Do get in touch for a no obligation confidential discussion.

Do you need to bother with trade marks?

Since writing my book, Legally Branded, a number of business owners have thanked me for making this fundamentally important subject of intellectual property (particularly trade marks) understandable.

Some entrepreneur friends have even suggested I emphasise the risks, and danger of ignoring intellectual property advice. However, I’ve always tried to steer clear of scare mongering as a tactic to raise the profile of intellectual property, preferring to work with those clients that “get” the importance of intellectual property. Our clients are the ones that get it, even if they’re not in industries where IP is obviously critical to their success. They value their IP from the moment they start their businesses as did our client Headspace, for example, who are doing great things to make meditation accessible.

I recently attended a meeting with a business owner whose mind was firmly made up that there was no point paying expensive lawyers to give advice on IP. I had agreed to meet with him at the request of his marketing manager who understands the importance of IP and hoped that someone more aware of the ins and outs of IP may be able to persuade his boss. However, this business owner’s views did not shift one bit as a result of our meeting mainly because he talked far more than he was willing to listen, and his mind was already made up. So, I know better than to try to address those whose minds are already made up that they know all they need to know about IP.

This is for readers who are curious, or undecided

This post is for those who may be curious, or who are still on the fence about whether it’s worth bothering with trade marks. While it’s never a good idea to generalise about who does or does not need IP, I will stick my neck out and say that if you’re a lifestyle business (by which I mean you’re aiming to earn a livelihood and are not trying to build a big business or one you can ultimately pass on or sell) you can ignore trade marks. You’re unlikely to come to anyone’s attention, or pose a threat to existing trade mark owners such that they would want you to rebrand for infringing on their rights. Even if someone did require you to rebrand, chances are it will just be an inconvenience to change your marketing materials and rename the business. You won’t have a name that attracts business, so could rename the business without suffering a drop in activity. Similarly, if you’re setting up a business and want to first see if it will take off, then you MAY, depending on your business idea, be able to use a temporary name, or take a chance with the name you want to use (provided you’re willing to change it if the advice is that you would do better to choose an alternative name), and see if you can get anything off the ground before worrying about trade marking. But for everyone else, it would be really foolish not to get trade mark advice from a specialist lawyer on the name you’re using.

Trade marks may be revoked

Trade marks can be cancelled, so even if you’ve secured a trade mark registration it doesn’t mean you’re all right to use that mark. That’s why it’s misguided to do your own registration work, just to save on legal fees. You may end up getting a registration, but it may not be for a mark that is capable of generating brand value. You may not have an adequate scope of coverage, so that although you’re registered, it may not protect you if someone were to challenge your rights. For example, registering a logo with a totally descriptive name – that is, one that describes what the business does – is easy enough to secure. However, it’s an extremely poor choice of branding.

The law protects businesses against various unfair competitive practices, and helps you fight off competitors who use similar marks to yours, but you have very limited recourse with a descriptive name. Using a descriptive name or a name that is otherwise incapable of being owned by you as a trade mark, leaves you wide open. You will lose business that may have been intended for you, and you will have a business that is far less valuable than it might have been had you selected a legally powerful name. This is the reason you should always consult your own IP lawyer on any name your branding professionals help you to choose, unless they are willing to take responsibility for its legal effectiveness.

Keyword rich names probably best avoided 

Also, take a look at the blog I wrote about Google’s recent algorithm change, which makes it even more of a poor decision to use descriptive names now online. The writing is on the wall, so I would avoid choosing keyword rich names too when branding your business online. The slides from my talk at Make It Big in 2013 also discuss descriptive names more.

Get legal advice

Even though you get some protection in this country just by using a name, don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. For example, if someone registers a Community Trade Mark they can stop you using a name you’ve been using, or limit you to using it only in a certain geographical area. Why court the vagaries of litigation with all the cost implications when you can secure your rights in a name you’re getting recognition with, by paying ten times less?

Trade marks and legal advice should not be dismissed as too expensive to bother with for anyone who has a viable business. They are an investment, and are the foundation for licensing and other ways of monetising your products and services. In particular, don’t wait till you have reached certain turnover targets, because trade marks are fundamentally relevant to any business that aspires to be more than a lifestyle business. Your business name is what the law protects when competitors behave unfairly. So, trade marking is good business practice and isn’t just about whether you intend to become a brand, or think that if you sold your company whoever bought it would want to use your brand name.

Misunderstanding IP

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the relevance of IP, and huge generalisations are made about its costs. But given that there are many different IP rights, of which trade marks are just one type, it’s foolish to dismiss them all as too expensive. Knowing how to implement procedures to protect just one of these rights may be the critical element to your business success after all.

I think the problem is down to the complexity of IP law. We are still in a transitional period between an industrial economy and a knowledge economy. Consequently knowing how to deal with the physical things, the tangibles comes easy while intangibles that you can’t feel or touch, are less well understood. Intangibles are our knowledge, our brands, our digital content, and more. By their very nature, they are easy to lose. Being transient, and non-physical, their legal significance can sometimes be overlooked or misunderstood.

Scrabulous and other high profile cases

The fact is that it can be difficult for lawyers to point out the benefits of IP except by pointing to situations where there have been well known incidents, such as with Scrabulous, which I discussed in a post recently. Those of us IP lawyers who prefer to focus on the positives, won’t therefore want to keep pointing out the dangers, but I have outlined a number of scenarios in my book Legally Branded, which should help you better understand the risks. Don’t assume that just because big businesses like Apple resolve their IP issues, that you will do so too. People should know that for smaller businesses, the scenarios they hear about in the news about the Googles, Microsofts, Apples of this world would put them out of business because they would not have the resources to get themselves out of trouble.

So the moral is if you are a small business without access to huge sums of money to litigate your way out of  trouble then you absolutely need to make sure you avoid the problem in the first place by getting professional advice to register your trade mark.

Also, if you’re going to ignore IP protection, you need to know what you’re doing. It could in some cases be rather like deciding not to bother with the foundations of a house you’re building. In television programs like Grand Designs, the participants who overspend may end up not having enough money to do all the fine design details they had wanted. Their  lack of funds means they have to compromise on the surface issues like designs. They can’t compromise on the very structure and foundation of a building. Unfortunately, the opposite approach happens in business when IP is ignored. People can spend a fortune on the surface things like branding and websites while ignoring the fundamentals.

Distinguish IP from other legal work

While there are some legal issues you can and should skimp on in the early days of a business, IP isn’t one of them. Note that IP is very often a contractual matter, and isn’t just about registrations. So, take advice to see how to minimise your IP expenditure in a safe way if you think spending on IP may seem a waste. Some business owners question any expenditure which doesn’t enable them to make money (such as learning a new marketing trick would increase their  chances of generating revenues). However , think of IP as what enables you to keep the money you make, and in some cases to continue to earn revenues. So at the very least you absolutely have to take advice in order to develop your strategy for IP.

5 Questions to ask before you engage a business lawyer

If you are starting up in business, getting the right legal help can be a key to success – especially if you are a creative business.  An effective Intellectual Property strategy to properly structure your IP rights from the beginning really does make a difference to the value of your business as it grows.

I was inspired by the Personal Family Lawyer site to consider what I think are important questions to ask.  This is the first in a series of blog posts aimed at those who are about to engage a business lawyer.  This first one focuses on the 5 questions to ask before engaging a business lawyer so you get a good deal from your lawyer:

1. What services can you offer to help me set up my new business?

Setting up in business is extremely time consuming.  There is so much information to absorb, so much to learn.  There is no shortage of advice and information – in fact there is far too much, often contradictory, out of date, and not really appropriate information to sift through.

So, look for a lawyer offering a cost effective way to help you reach the right decisions and manage the information overload.  Can they help you work out what is the best way to proceed for your business matter?  Can they help you to distinguish the essential, from the nice to have legal compliance?  Will they be willing to explain why something is required, and when it might be acceptable to use a standard template, and how to implement it?

2. How do you invoice for your services?

This naturally leads into one of the most important questions you should know – how they charge for the work they will do on your behalf.   No one wants surprises!

If the lawyer will not send you clear information about how they bill for their services beware – you could be in for some big surprises about what things cost down the road.

Look for a lawyer who bills on a fixed fee, project basis rather than on an hourly basis, (unless you are engaging in litigation when Court rules often dictate hourly rate charging).  The lawyer you choose should promise to never send you an unexpected bill for quick phone calls or emails.

3. How are you able to be responsive to my needs on an ongoing basis?

You can and should ask your lawyer how they will respond to your ongoing needs, how quickly calls will be returned, and whether there is someone on hand to answer quick questions.  Should you expect to be put straight through to them when you call the office?

A well run practice should not be putting you straight through to your lawyer, because how can such a lawyer be effective and efficient if they are taking every call that comes through?  Calls should be pre-arranged when you are both ready and can focus on your specific needs.

An effective system should give you the names of team members who are able to offer help if you ring the office.  This is because many of your queries are likely to be within the capability of appropriately trained staff to answer.  They will know if they cannot answer your question to fix a set time for you to talk with your lawyer later in the week, or that day if the matter is urgent.  At the appointed time you will have the  lawyer’s full attention to focus exclusively on your matter – meaning you get more value from the interaction.

4. How will you proactively communicate with me on an ongoing basis?

Unfortunately, most solicitors do not proactively communicate with their clients on an ongoing basis. The general thinking in the legal industry is that legal work is transactional in nature and clients will call when something changes. But, this is faulty thinking.  Look for a lawyer who has systems and processes in place to communicate with you proactively.

At the very least your lawyer should proactively communicate with you at least monthly via an informative, easy to read newsletter.

5. Do you offer an ‘in house lawyer’ service, so I can call about any legal problem I have within my business or private life?

In today’s complex world, lawyers must have specialized training in one or more specific practice areas, such as business, intellectual property, or corporate law. You definitely do NOT want to be working with a lawyer who professes to be an expert in whatever walks through the door.

Trust me, you probably don’t want the lawyer who advised on your branding to also handle your divorce.

However, you do want to be able to tap into the knowledge, skills and insights your business lawyer has developed through years of training and experience as a legal practitioner.  So, you should be able to consult your lawyer on all sorts of legal or financial issues knowing they will be able to guide you towards the exact right expert to help you.

When you ask these 5 questions before hiring a business lawyer, you will know you are engaging an advisor who will help you to make the very best decisions for your business, and who has your long term interests in mind.

What Next?

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This post is part of a series, to view all of the posts in this series, please click here.