The real importance of protecting intellectual property

The dragons’ interest in a business proposal frequently vanishes once they establish that there is no appropriate Intellectual property (IP) protection.  Understandably, they, like indeed many other investors, are reluctant to back an idea for a new product or service, funding its development and marketing, knowing that a competitor is free to take the idea and launch a competing product or service.   
With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that one of the success stories of the latest Dragons’ Den series is that of Liz and Alan Colleran, who secured £80,000 in their business because they applied for patent protection for their invention – a combined duvet and mattress for use in caravans. They also gave their invention a name, the “Duvalay”, and obtained Trademark protection for it.  
The importance of IP protection was also highlighted in the reality TV show “The Apprentice”, where mention of his patents contributed to Tom Pellereau’s victory.  Tom’s invention, a curved nail file, may not be ground-breaking, but by protecting it with a patent and registering a Trademark -Stylfile – Tom proved to Lord Sugar that he is business savvy.  
So what is IP and why is it so important? IP is an umbrella term for any form of original creation that can be bought or sold.  It is sometimes referred to as “imagination made real”. It is an asset just like a car or a building. Because IP is intangible, it is easy to underestimate its importance, but just like other kinds of property, IP needs to be protected from unauthorized use. 
Some of the key forms of IP that you need to be aware of include patents, trademarks and designs. 
Any new idea you have, for example regarding a new product or an improvement to an existing product, may represent an invention.  If you have made an invention, you should consider patent protection. 
Patents are by no means only available for complex or cutting-edge inventions, as illustrated by Tom’s curved nail file.  They can generally be obtained for any new solution to a technical problem.  A patent is a monopoly right relating to an invention, giving the you the power to stop others from exploiting your invention without your permission. 
No matter what type of business you run, you will no doubt want to try to ensure that everyone can distinguish the goods and services of your business from those of another.  This is where Trademarks come in.  A Trademark may be made up of one or more words, logos or a combination of both.
It is a good idea to opt for a made up word, like Tom did with “Stylfile” and Liz and Alan did with “Duvalay”.  A Trademark can be a valuable marketing tool, and registering your Trademark can help you to stop others from using it.  
If you deal with the appearance of a product, then you may wish to think about design protection.  There are two different types of design protection available, Design Right and Registered Designs, and there are significant differences between them.  
Design Right is an automatic protection for the three-dimensional shape of a design. Design Right allows you to stop anyone from copying the shape or configuration of the article.  A stronger form of protection is available in the form of Registered Designs, which give you exclusive rights in a design, allowing you stop people from exploiting a product to which your design is applied. 
Patents, Trademarks and Registered Designs all need to be applied for.  It is vital to keep the details of your invention or design confidential until the appropriate IP protection is in place.  You can file an application yourself with the UK Intellectual Property Office, but it is a good idea to consult a Patent and Trademark Attorney, would can advise you on the most appropriate form of IP protection and help you with the application process.  
It is important to appreciate that all of these forms of IP are territorial, so they only offer protection in the countries in respect of which they have been obtained.  You therefore need to consider where your market is and tailor your IP accordingly. 
Intellectual Property can be your most important business asset, so it is important to ensure that it is suitably protected – and perhaps one day you may find yourself in the Dragons’ Den hearing the words “I’m in”.