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Property rights

Dave Hopkins of the UK Intellectual Property Office examines the importance of intellectual property to your business

Every product or service that we use in our daily lives is the result of a long chain of big or small innovations, such as changes in design or improvements that make a product look or function the way it does today. Take, for example, the mobile telephone: the technology can be traced back to an idea pioneered by the Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr back in the 1940s, which was seen as a breakthrough in the area of communication.

Many others have since improved the design and function of such products and legally protected their improvements through the acquisition of intellectual property (IP) rights. This is likely to be the case with almost any product or service in the marketplace. Everything from a tube of toothpaste to the latest MP3 player will have IP that can be protected. The chemical formula or technical parts can be protected by patents, the shape or appearance can be protected by registered design, the brand name can be protected by trademarks and any artwork or music is protected by copyright.

How does this affect your business?

Regardless of what product your business makes or what service it provides, it is likely that you are using and creating intellectual property and you should consider the steps for protecting, managing and enforcing it to maximise the commercial results from its ownership. Almost every business will have a trade name or one or more trademarks and should consider protecting them. Many will have valuable confidential business information, from customer lists to sales tactics that they may wish to protect. Others may have developed creative original designs or invented a new process or solved a technical problem.

If you are using intellectual property that belongs to others, then you should consider buying it or acquiring the rights to use it by taking a licence in order to avoid a potential dispute and expensive litigation.

Why should you use IP?

Intellectual property may assist you in almost every aspect of your business development and competitive strategy, from product development to product design, from service delivery to marketing, and may play an important factor when considering exporting or expanding your business abroad. Your trademarks are in many ways the face of your business; they allow your customers to distinguish your products and services from your competitors. They are also seen as a guarantee of consistent quality ? a customer who is pleased with your product or service will continue to purchase it based on the quality expectations of the known trademark.

Effective use of innovative design adds value to a product by creating variety in a world of commodities. Aesthetically pleasing design helps build trust and lasting customer relationships which translate into higher market share, better prices and bigger profits. If your company has invested a significant amount of time and money in R&D, patent protection of the resulting inventions would help in recovering costs and obtaining higher returns on investments.

A patent owner may also license their rights in exchange for royalties to generate additional income. Most businesses, although not directly involved in the copyright area, print brochures or publish advertisements that create and/or use copyright- protected materials. Even coffee shops, bars, hotels, restaurants and other retail outlets play music ? protected by copyright to attract customers and increase turnover. Thus proprietors of these businesses must understand the basics of copyright law.

Enforcing your rights

IP rights are essentially private rights. If someone infringes those rights, that is, uses material without permission where there is no rule of law that might make such use legal, it is generally for IP right owners to use any remedies available under the civil law, for example, seeking injunctions and damages. However, in many cases it may be better to try and negotiate a solution to illegal use with the infringer before taking legal action.

The best approach must be carefully considered in consultation with a legal or other professional adviser such as a Patent or Trade Mark Attorney. In order to reduce the chances of people using your IP without your permission, you can make sure you bring the existence of IP to their notice in any dealings with them. If you put material protected by IP into the public domain, for example by publishing or selling goods, you can mark it appropriately with the ®, ©, ?, or Pat. Pending symbols.

What is the UK Intelectual Property Office?

The UK Intellectual Property Office is responsible for the national framework of intellectual property rights, comprising patent, designs, trademarks and copyright


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