- Build an IP strategy into your business plan from the start
- Don’t be put off by cost – it’ll be worth the money
- You can’t protect your business properly without IP
- Remember to think about getting your IP in place overseas if necessary
As a startup, your intellectual property (IP) might be one of the few assets you really have. But not enough new businesses take the necessary steps to protect it. We spoke to Peter Finnie, IP expert and Partner at Gill Jennings & Every LLP, to find out why entrepreneurs should be thinking about IP.
What areas does IP encompass?
It includes patents that protect inventions, trademarks that protect your brand, copyright and even trade secrets. If you’re a tech startup, for example, you’ll want to think about patenting your ideas; if you’re another type of startup, branding might be most important – it depends what space you’re in.
IP can be used to maintain exclusivity in a market for a product or process and keep competitors from undermining the business’s commercial position. It is also used for licensing to others or for selling to another business.
Why is IP often overlooked by startups?
Unfortunately, it’s not standard practice for people who learn about business to consider IP, but I think that will change in the future. No matter how good your business background, you’re unlikely to have experience of IP – but for a startup, that’s pretty much the only asset you’ve got!
But it’s also because of money. The cost of acquiring enforceable IP is perceived as expensive and perhaps not offering value for money, but that’s false. A business’s IP strategy can be tailored according to its funding requirements – the important thing is not to ignore the issue. For example, it may be critical to file any patent applications early.
It is crucial to establish a clear IP strategy as part of your business plan. Work out how IP is going to support the company, establish procedures and consider the reality of potential commercial risks.
What problems can lack of IP protection lead to?
Importantly, you may run into trouble when looking for investment. If someone’s going to invest in your business, they’ll want to know that protection is in place to prevent a third party from ‘stealing’ it. You’ll want that protection, too – because other companies can just run off with your ideas!
Imagine you’re in the software industry and decide not to obtain patent protection, but your competitor down the road does. If he gets a patent covering your software, you’re left in a difficult legal and commercial position. If someone comes to you and accuses you of infringing on their IP, without any IP protection yourself, you’ve nothing to play with when negotiating a settlement.
Do you need extra protection if you’re doing business abroad?
Yes, businesses have to make sure that they are free to use their trademarks in other countries and, if funds allow, obtain patents in key overseas markets. Within 12 months of a UK patent application, you can file a foreign one. The good thing is that they’re treated as though they were filed on the earlier date, which buys startups some time to get funding in place.
What if you think someone’s violated your IP?
Seek professional advice. It can be illegal to call or write to another company and threaten to sue. You have to be careful – speak to a patent attorney first.