Con artists and scammers aren’t new, but their ponzi schemes just might be, according to experts in intellectual property (IP). While trademarks, patents, designs and copyright laws may protect your IP, there are signs that scammers are getting more creative about the way they try to dupe IP owners into giving them money.
In a high profile case that came to light at the end of last year, a company trading as the ‘Intellectual Property Agency Ltd’ (IPA) deliberately tried to deceive IP owners by sending them fake renewal reminder notices. In its judgment, the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (IPEC) said that IPA was trying to give the impression that it was the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) in order to persuade them to pay a vastly-inflated renewal fee for their trade mark registrations. The director of the fraudulent business was ordered to pay £500,000 plus legal costs.
The UK IPO has confirmed to Withers & Rogers LLP that in 2015, it received 242 pieces of customer feedback about scam renewal notices, which is a small decrease on the previous year’s figure of 262. The organisation also confirmed that most of the customers that contacted them last year were aware that the notice they had received was a scam.
However, businesses should not be complacent, according to Karl Barnfather, chairman and patent attorney at Withers & Rogers. “It is important to stay on the look-out for scams particularly as there are signs that the scammers are getting more creative and some of the fake notices can appear extremely convincing. IP managers may not be aware of such scams and could easily pay up without realising what they had done. If in doubt, businesses should contact a professional IP specialist for advice.”
How strong are the UK’s IP protection laws?
The Court of Appeal overturned High Court judgment which stated that PMS International’s Kiddee Cases infringed Trunki’s design for children’s ride-on suitcases.
The UK’s legal system protecting IP rights have been long established. In addition to the law itself, there are a number of professionals specialising in IP protection and enforcement, from patent and trade mark attorneys to IP barristers and IP judges in specialist IP courts. However, as Peter Finnie, managing partner and patent attorney of Gill Jennings & Every LLP, explained, enforcing IP rights can be expensive, which can pose a barrier to SMEs.
“The UK is pioneering schemes to improve access to justice for SMEs such as small claims tracks and improving legal certainty but recent high profile litigation such as the Trunki case has shown that there is still a long way to go, particularly when it comes to pan-European rights,” he told Growth Business.
A fine line between IP theft and good old fashioned competition
According to Finnie, competition law and IP law work together, particularly in markets for cooperating products and after-market products such as interoperable software and capsules for coffee makers.
In some markets, the tolerance to “borrowing” and “copying” is higher. “Some consider that imitation is the best form of flattery. For example, the fashion industry is to some extent driven by the fact that catwalk designs are copied and produced on the high street and designers continue to innovate to stay ahead. That’s not to say that there aren’t steps (designers) can take to stop others misusing your trademarks or designs when they step over the line,” Finnie added.
In many cases, gleaning inspiration from other companies may lead to inadvertent IP theft for businesses looking for their next big idea to grow. Finnie advises a risk assessment process when taking a new idea out to market. “IP advisors can help assess infringement risk as the circumstances require and when the existence of relevant third-party rights becomes known.”
It’s important to know what’s already out there. “In the majority of IP cases, the fact that the infringer was unaware of the IP is irrelevant.”
Is there a legal case if an entrepreneur’s business model is stolen?
According to Finnie, business ideas cannot be protected, but the expression of that idea could. “As you can’t technically protect an idea there is scope to use business concepts which are already out there and create your own unique brand identity without infringing anyone else’s rights. It’s not necessarily the person who got there first who is most successful; you only need to look at MySpace and Facebook for evidence of that.”