Intellectual Property 101


Date: 7 October 2009

Most people know what intellectual property rights are, and nearly everyone knows that they can be fairly useful and important in a competitive business environment. But in my experience, most people have a poor understanding of some of the key categories of intellectual property and the protection that’s available for them. The following is by no means a comprehensive survey of IP protection. But it's a good start, in plain English, for anyone thinking about protection.

Copyright gives an author (or an artist) the ability to protect their work. So if someone creates an original text in the course of their business (for example, an instruction manual), copyright means that others can’t use or reproduce that text without permission. This protection is so strong that it’s not even necessary that the author has branded their work by stating "copyright", their full name and the year that the work was produced.

Trademarks protect you from having your business’s image or brand reproduced by another business. Trade marks can protect a name, word, phrase, logo, symbol, design, image, or combination of these - you can even trademark colours and, I think (but don't quote me), scents. You need to go through a formal registration process, and your trademark will be in relation to an industry and region, depending on the trademark you apply for. But if you don't apply for a trademark, you don't have one! Just putting TM beside your new product doesn't get you the protection you need.

A patent lets you protect something you've invented - such as a machine, a material or a process. Patents give exclusive rights to the patentee and have varying levels of financial obligation and term, depending on a number of things including which territories (parts of the world) and categories (eg “food” or “textile” you want protection for). It's relatively complicated to apply for a patent, but once you have one, you are well protected against anyone trying to steal your idea.

Then there’s design registration and design right which provides the creators of new designs with varying levels of protection. You can choose to register (with the Intellectual Property Office) or not, and protection ranges from three years to 25. Exactly what is protected differs depending on how far you go with registration. Protection can also be extended to other countries.

Intellectual property protection can become quite complicated and the laws in this area are developing all the time. So you really should always seek help from your lawyer or other intellectual property specialist.

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