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A guide to intellectual property


Clarion exhibited at a trade show recently and as expected we spoke to businesses in a variety of sectors.  Several of the conversations that members of the IP team had made us realise how many businesses would benefit from a simple guide to the various intellectual property (IP) rights. 

The main IP rights are patents, designs, trade marks, and copyright.  Rights in trade secrets can also be valuable.

Patents protect inventions, whether in relation to a products or processes.  An invention must be new, must not have been obvious, and must have industrial (in the widest sense of the word) application.  Patents (which last 20 years) give monopoly rights; they enable an owner to prevent any use of the invention by others, whether or not they have copied.  It is not only technical products which can benefit; valuable patented products have included products such as non-spill baby cups, flame effect fires, and bolts. 

Designs protect appearance.  Whilst protection excludes technical features, it is not limited to aesthetically appealing objects.  In the UK and EU, appearance derived from shape, contours, colour and materials can be protected provided it is new and creates a different impression from existing designs.  Protection can be obtained even for graphic symbols such as company logos.  We have been engaged over the years with companies placing considerable value on designs for products as diverse as furniture, sleeping bags, and even sanitary towels.  Registered designs can provide monopoly rights covering the entire EU for 25 years.

Trade marks are relevant to every business.  They guarantee trade origin, and enable businesses to build and protect reputations under their names.  Whilst unregistered (passing-off) rights can be built up over time, they will be limited geographically to the extent of the business’s reputation, and it can be difficult to prove their existence.  On the other hand, a trade mark registration can provide simple monopoly protection throughout a whole country or region, and if looked after it can last indefinitely. 

Copyright arises as soon as work is created, with no registration requirement.  Copyright protects artistic and literary works (there is no requirement for artistic merit) and computer programs.  There are similar rights protecting databases.  An instruction leaflet accompanying a drill will be a literary work, as will the text on a website.  A woven picture on a cushion will be an artistic work. 

A perceived disadvantage with registered protection (for patents mostly, but also designs) can be the requirement that the invention (or design) be published in exchange for protection.  Instead, some manufacturers prefer to maintain confidentiality, knowing that their trade secrets will last longer than the term offered by registered protection.  Combinations of confidentiality (for recipes) and strong trade mark protection have been used successfully by the likes of Coca Cola.

To get the most from IP it is advisable to combine a portfolio with a reputation for enforcement.  This doesn’t have to be expensive - prudent companies pick their battles carefully, identifying the quick wins and combining them with valuable PR. 


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