Intellectual property (IP) assets – inventions, creations, brands and designs – are highly valuable to businesses, but as the world grows increasingly interconnected, protecting them can become more difficult. And as growth businesses in the UK turn to emerging markets to further their prospects, they might wonder where to start when it comes to protecting intellectual property.
Registration is the first step to sound IP protection. Mary-Ellen Field, IP Consultant and Expert Witness, insists that companies should never enter a new market until they have ensured that their intellectual property is protected there.
“You must take expert advice about the full range of intellectual property rights relevant to your products or services.” she says. “These include patents, trade marks, copyright and registered designs. It is extremely dangerous to attend or exhibit at trade shows until you are sure your rights are protected. Protection in the UK does not afford you protection in other jurisdictions.”
IP protection overseas is governed largely by international treaties. Bodies such as the European Patent Office and the World Intellectual Property Organisation work to publicise the mechanics of IP registration and to provide information to businesses.
There can be issues, however. “The IP world has been very busy developing treaties and international structures to help IP owners protect their rights as cheaply and effectively as possible. It is, however, quite difficult to convince governments to keep up,” says Field. “The Office of Harmonisation for the Internal Market (OHIM) in Alicante, which is responsible for Community Trade Marks and Designs, is leading the way. The Madrid System, administered by OHIM in Geneva, provides trade mark owners with a much cheaper method of registering their marks in the countries that have signed the Madrid Protocol. The Patent world is working very hard to help inventors protect and profit from their inventions although it is still a lengthy and expensive process,” she says.
Businesses should not assume that registering a domain name will protect them, Field adds. “You should not seek to enter a new market on the basis of a domain name. Domain names, important though they are, are not adequate protection to launch a new product,” she says.
Of course, how you approach international IP protection will depend on what you are protecting and where you intend to do business. It’s a complex area and it's worth seeking advice from professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA), the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys (ITMA) or, for a specialist IP solicitor, The Law Society.
The Government’s online resource for businesses, Business Link, has some very useful country-specific advice about IP issues in, for example, India, China, Brazil, the USA, and includes information on how to deal with potential problems in each area.
Selling into overseas markets requires planning and research on the likelihood of intellectual property rights (IPR) theft or infringement, the remedies available locally, as well as some sort of recovery plan for the business if the worst occurs.
IP insurers and advisors recommend the following risk-management measures:
- Registration – understand what you can register in the UK and look into the mechanics of registering trade marks, patents and other intangible assets in all markets you operate in.
- Consider your competitive position in those markets. If your product or technology is in high demand you may be more vulnerable to infringements. Factor a degree of piracy or other infringements into your business plan and formulate a recovery plan for use should you uncover a significant infringement.
- Consider insuring your IP assets – whether that is your brand, copyright, patents or trade marks
Even if you only plan to do a small amount of selling in new markets, it is important to extend your UK registered design, patent or trade mark protection to the relevant countries, assess the risks and make preparations. If you don’t, it could affect the future of your business both overseas and at home.