Intellectual property issues are among some of the most important considerations that a startup or small business will encounter. Protecting intellectual property can be essential to obtaining venture capital funding or preventing competitors from unfairly competing with you. There’s no good having a business if you’re not protected from imitators or disputes about ownership of your ideas. (1) Think about trademarks Is your business name protectable in the countries that you wish to trade in? Is it already being used or does the word have another meaning in a different country? Future investors will want to know that you have the rights to trade in the countries that they wish to trade in, and you need to consider this right from the start to give your business the best chance of success. (2) If you’re creating a “thing”, do your research If you’re creating a product, do research before filing for a patent; is there a market for your product? It is expensive and takes a long time to protect your idea so make sure you do your market research and can be confident that somebody will buy it at the end of the day. If you have paid for your product to be patented and want somebody to manufacture it for you, you also need to ensure you have agreements in place limiting their rights to your initial idea, invention or design. (3) Create a founders’ agreement from the outset If you’re starting a business with a partner, it is highly advisable to create a document (rather like a pre-nup agreement) at the outset, which clearly sets out such things as percentage of ownership in the company and what happens in the case of a dispute or, if one of you wants to sell the business,and the other one doesn’t. Once a dispute has started it is much harder and messier to sort it out so you need to make sure all parties are clear on this from day one. (4) Understand the different forms of intellectual property Make sure you understand the different forms of intellectual property and the relative costs and strengths of each. A good starting point is to critically evaluate your company’s value proposition and the assets that are critical to those value propositions. This kind of evaluation is critical in protecting your core assets. (5) View your intellectual property as an asset Your intellectual property adds to the value of your business. Sometimes there’s intellectual property developed in the form of software which can be licensed to others and generate additional revenue streams. Don’t just assume that it’s only the big players that should care about it. While larger companies have an advantage in how much they can spend to protect and enforce intellectual property; often the only thing that separates you from the giants is legally owning your registered trade mark or patent. (6) Be aware that it may carry a legal cost You may need to enforce your intellectual property and that can involve legal costs. If you have all the various registrations (where possible) your legal case will be stronger. By understanding the type of intellectual property you produce and which elements need to be protected and where you can future-proof your business and minimise costs. What company wouldn’t want to do that? (7) Owning intellectual property is not only about stopping others from copying your idea Not only is it about batting away the copycats but also controlling how and when it is used. Make sure you do commercial research around the business and work out some costings around production and distribution. Without this, any protection you get could be practically useless. Don’t wait for intellectual property issues to come your way. As your business grows, managing it will evolve and become more complicated. But being aware of the importance of intellectual property and taking steps to protect it will ensure you’re not caught out and will keep you on the road to success. Julie Deane is CEO and founder of the Cambridge Satchel Company, as well as entrepreneur in residence at the British Library, and Jeremy O’Hare is relationship manager at the British Library Business and IP Centre
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