Intellectual property rights and entrepreneurship
An Intellectual Property Office case study

Page 5: How do entrepreneurs protect their ideas?

There are four main categories of intellectual property rights (IPR). Each gives a different protection and is used for different purposes.

Patents

Patents are for inventions. Entrepreneurs can seek patents for a new product or a new process that can be used in industry. For example, James Dyson obtained a patent for his bag-less vacuum cleaner. A patent can protect the invention, preventing other businesses from making, using, importing or selling similar products.

To apply for a patent, a business must submit a patent specification. This is a written description, often with drawings of the invention. This sets out what the invention does and provides important technical details. A patent can last up to 20 years; if it is renewed every year.

Designs

Registering a design prevents a competitor copying the physical appearance of a product or component. The appearance of a product includes lines, shape, contours, texture, colours and materials.

A registered design lasts initially for five years, although it can be renewed for up to 25 years. For example, registering designer fashions will stop others from using those designs. This helps to protect designs from being copied and appearing as cheap fakes on the high street.

Trade marks

A trade mark is a sign that can distinguish goods and services from those of other traders. A sign can include a combination of words, logos and pictures. To register a trade mark, it must be:

  • distinctive for a group of goods and services
  • not the same as (or similar to) any earlier marks on the register for the same or similar goods and services

A trade mark is a marketing tool which helps to develop and distinguish the brand. The trade mark also provides reassurance for consumers. People will recognise products more easily when they see them advertised. For example, goods bearing the Nike 'tick' logo demonstrate they are Nike products and meet Nike quality standards. Trade Marks can last indefinitely provided that they are renewed every 10 years.

Entrepreneurs register trade marks, designs and logos to protect and represent their brands. Branding delivers huge commercial value to a company. Many people recognise brands rather than individual products or services. Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of easyJet®, uses trade marks to protect the 'easy' brand. The entrepreneurs behind Innocent smoothies use distinctive logos and trade marks to create a recognisable brand.

Copyright

Copyright is an IP right that relates to the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. For example, anyone can write a story based on the idea of a superhero, but they cannot copy the name, the text or illustrations from other books about the same subject.

Copyright protects sound recordings, films, broadcasts, photographs and original artistic, musical, dramatic and literary works. Unlike patents, designs and trade marks, copyright is an unregistered right. It applies as soon as something is created. There is no registration process or fee. It covers both printed and web-based materials.

Intellectual property also covers concepts as diverse as trade secrets, plant varieties and performers' rights. Often, more than one type of IP may apply to the same creation. For example, the Harry Potter books, films and merchandise are covered by:

  • copyright for the books and films
  • design for some of the Harry Potter scarves and clothes
  • trade marks for the Harry Potter range of toys, games, etc

An inventor who has a new idea should keep it secret until the idea is registered. If an idea is discussed in public, then it cannot be protected.

There is no worldwide legal protection. IP has to be applied for in each country. In Britain, the UK Intellectual Property Office is responsible for registering intellectual property rights.

Intellectual Property Office | Intellectual property rights and entrepreneurship

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