Nothing breeds copycats like a successful business venture. To mitigate the risks associated with eroding market opportunities Intellectual Property (IP) law shouldn’t be taken lightly. But it can be a minefield, particularly for start-ups and SMEs that either don’t have the necessary experience or resources. Jeremy O’Hare, Relationship Manager at the British Library Business & IP Centre, works with small businesses and many of these small businesses have deal with deal with IP problems that could have been avoided if the right steps had been taken at the right time. Jeremy has identified the top 5 Intellectual Property mistakes made.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding and confusion around IP. Many people mix up the various forms of protection and just how much they can and can’t commercially protect in their business, however it needn’t be like that. IP can be divided into some clearly defined areas: patents, trademarks, design, copyright – with a couple of other forms being trade secrets and IP protected through legal agreements such as Non-Disclosure agreements.
Not being realistic with coverage and pushing the cost up
There is a myth that IP is an expensive business, and no doubt it can be. However, really you can spend as much as you want to. Sometimes it is tempting to do the opposite and spend large amounts on IP by covering all areas and countries. While this is not in itself bad, it does help to be strategic about where you protect your IP. Hone in on which regions are critical to your business. By initially focusing your IP coverage on the places you will be trading costs can be kept down.
There are also comparatively cheaper forms of IP that you can take advantage of. Patents are the most expensive to acquire but trademarks are more reasonable, both nationally and overseas. This is even more true when it comes to design rights, whilst copyright protection is free (though not to enforce). By understanding the type of IP you produce in your business and which elements need to be protected you can maximise effectiveness and minimise cost. What start-up wouldn’t want to do that?
Thinking you’re too small and it doesn’t matter
A big mistake is to think that only the big players care about IP. While larger companies have an advantage in how much they can spend to enforce IP, often the only thing that separates you from them is legally owning your registered trademark or patent. Remember, your business’s IP is also an asset that will increase in value the more you exploit your invention, product design or grow your brand so it needs to be protected at all times.
Not doing the commercial research around the IP
This may be indirectly related to IP but it is still a very important consideration. You could have the greatest idea in the world for a new product but unless you’ve done your market research and worked out some costings around production and distribution, any protection you get could be practically useless. I’ve witnessed many an entrepreneur story of bringing a great new idea to market only to find that the price they needed to cover costs is way above what their target market is prepared to pay. You can do invaluable market research at the Business & IP Centre.
Not setting IP agreements in place early on
When you’re starting out you naturally want everything to run smoothly, so it’s tempting not to worry about discussing legalities for fear it may upset another party. You need to be especially wary around confidentiality and new ideas that could be patentable. Also, if you are bringing people into the business that have access to the IP you’re producing, it would be advisable to add in an IP protection clause as part of their contract.
Be aware when dealing with commissioned work too, such as websites or graphic images designed for commercial use in the business. Legally, the creator of the work owns the IP unless they assign the IP to you in writing. This area is particularly important when friends or contacts are acting on your behalf. It all may be rosy now but when you become successful they could legally create a headache by asserting their creative rights over a piece you commissioned them to complete.
Building a business or a new product is exhilarating. But great ideas are more of value if you’ve got a fighting chance at protecting them as your own. Intellectual property laws can help, but it’s up to you to help yourself first and put the right measures in place to keep those copycats away.
Jeremy O’Hare is a Relationship Manager at the British Library. He runs the Innovating of Growth Project for the British Library Business & IP Centre, which gives small business owners with a turnover of £100k the support they need to take it to the next level.