Susan Bradley: Start-up? Start thinking about IP

As a busy start-up owner, protecting your intellectual property (i.e. trade marks, patents, designs) may be low on your list of priorities.  You may even think that you don’t have any intellectual property (IP) to protect.  This is rarely true; every business that uses a name, brand or logo should consider trade mark protection, and businesses creating products that have a unique design could consider registered design protection.  Where a business is innovating new products or processes, patent protection may be appropriate.

Being well-informed about IP and having a robust IP protection strategy allows competitors and potential investors to see that your business is serious about developing and protecting new ideas and products.  IP assets can have value on your balance sheet, so may increase the value of your company. Ownership of IP registrations may also make competitors think twice before using your innovative ideas.  If you decide not to develop your idea yourself, you can sell or licence your registered trade mark, design or patent to a third party.

The best time to consider IP protection is before a product or service is launched.  This is certainly best practice for brands and logos, to ensure that you are not going to infringe someone else’s trade mark.  Design applications can be filed within twelve months of your design going to market, but it is usually safer to apply for registration beforehand, especially if you may need to seek protection outside of the EU.  For patents, it is critical that an application is on file before any kind of public disclosure, written or verbal.

It is also important to consider where IP protection is needed.  Trade marks, designs and patents are all territorial rights, so if you think you may want to export your products or services into the EU and beyond, you should consider registering an EU trade mark or an EU design, instead of or as well as a UK registration.  A UK patent application can be used as a basis for an international (PCT) application, which can in turn be used to seek protection in over 150 countries.  Filing a PCT application is a practical step that small businesses can take to allow time to see how a product develops, before incurring the cost of filing separate patent applications in different countries.

The potential cost of obtaining IP protection is understandably a worry for small business owners.  However, in the UK, official registration fees for trade mark, design and patent applications are relatively low.  Although costs can rise if you are seeking protection abroad, these can be deferred by filing a UK application and then claiming “priority” from it within a 6 or 12 month period.  Even obtaining professional advice from a patent or trade mark attorney need not be prohibitively expensive, and getting things right from the beginning will save time and money later on.  Start-ups and SMEs may also be eligible to apply for funding to cover the costs of applying to protect their IP; government bodies such as Innovate UK and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are a good place to start looking for financial support.

Finally, be proactive – don’t wait until a competitor copies your idea, you inadvertently infringe someone else’s IP, or it is too late to file an application.  Developing an IP strategy need not be difficult.  There is a wealth of information and support available for start-ups and SMEs.  The UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) provides free training, case studies, short guides and even an online IP health check to get you started.  They also explain how to find a local patent or trade mark attorney who will offer you professional advice.  So if you have a start-up, start thinking about IP now – you may have more worth protecting than you think.


By Susan Bradley, Chartered Patent Attorney, Marks & Clerk


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