IP for Startups & Small Businesses in Under 10 Minutes

No doubt you’ve heard of the term IP or intellectual property and have been directed by colleagues and friends to go and protect your IP.  Many of you may also have Googled the term and will have been confronted with a vast array of search results advising you amongst other things, to apply for a patent, register a trade mark and copyright your website content.

Confused?  Worried that you should be doing something about your IP but don’t know where to start?

Hopefully in the next 10 minutes you spend reading this article I can put your mind at rest and help you understand what #IP can mean for a #startup or a #smallbusiness like yours.

What is IP?

According to the The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), intellectual property refers to  ‘creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.’ http://www.wipo.int/about-ip/en/


Different Types of IP or IPRs (Intellectual Property Rights)


(Non-Automatic Right – Registration with the UK Intellectual Property Office Required)











Patents are granted for technical inventions. Applications for patents must be filed with a national or regional patent office. They are examined in a process that results in the grant or refusal of a patent. Patents normally last for a maximum of 20 years from the date of filing of the application. In some countries, a special, less powerful kind of patent called a utility model (or “petty patent”) is also available.


Utility Models (Not available in the UK)

(Non-Automatic Right – Registration with your country’s Intellectual Property Office Required)



Utility Models in comparison with patents usually offer simpler protection, for a shorter period of time. Most countries require inventions simply to be new in order for them to receive utility model protection. Others, for example Germany, also require them to involve an inventive step. But most countries examine neither novelty nor inventive step and will register any utility model that complies with the formalities.



(Automatic Right – Registration with the UK Intellectual Property Office NOT Required)



Copyright does not need to be registered. It “automatically” exists when the work is created. Copyright protects any original, creative, intellectual or artistic expression, including novels, scientific literature, plays, software, photographs and paintings, music, sculptures, television broadcasts, etc. Even the smell of a perfume may be (indirectly) protected by copyright: the blend of ingredients that goes into a perfume can represent an original work of authorship and can therefore be protected by copyright. The duration of a copyright is roughly the life of the author plus 70 years, depending on the case and country. 

Trade Marks  

(Non-Automatic Right – Registration with the UK Intellectual Property Office Required)



Trade Marks are distinctive signs identifying and distinguishing the commercial source of goods or services.They can consist of words, logos, names and colours, as well as any other means of identifying commercial origin, such as the shape of the product or its packaging, or even sounds or smells. For instance, most Disney characters are registered as trade marks. Trade marks can be created simply by using them (as Google did, for example) or by explicitly registering them.

Registered Designs (USA: “design patents”)

(Non-Automatic Right – Registration with the UK Intellectual Property Office Required)



Registered Designs protect the ornamental design, form, appearance and style of objects, but not their functional aspects. The requirements are absolute novelty and individual character. The duration of protection for a Community registered design is a maximum of 25 years from the date of application to register. They are granted in five-year terms, which are renewable.

Unregistered Designs

(Automatic Right – Registration with the UK Intellectual Property Office NOT Required)


Unregistered Designs also enjoy protection under certain conditions. You get a free, automatic right when you present an original design to the public. It gives you the right to stop anyone from copying your design, but is usually of a more limited duration than that available for registered designs. The duration of protection for a Community unregistered design is a maximum of three years following publication of the design in the European Union

Trade Secrets

(Best practice to place a duty to keep confidential information secret by a written non-disclosure agreement)



Trade Secrets consist of any confidential business information which provides an enterprise a competitive edge. Contrary to other figures of IP, trade secrets are protected without any procedural formalities; consequently, they can be protected for an unlimited period of time. A trade secret information must be (a) secret, (b) must have commercial value due to its secret nature and (c) must have been subjected to reasonable steps by the rightful holder of the information to keep it secret (i.e. non-disclosure agreements with employees and business partners and measures to prevent industrial espionage).

The conditions may vary from country to country; however, the information provided above corresponds to the general standards which are referred to in article 39 of the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement).

Passing Off  and Breach of Confidence 

Not strictly types of intellectual property rights; but they are court actions that can be used to protect your goodwill and reputation.  For instance a competitor using a logo and domain name similar to yours with the aim of taking business away from you (passing off).  Or a supplier using market sensitive information supplied by you without your consent (breach of confidence).


Other Forms of IP 

This can include plant variety protection, databases, geographical indications and semiconductor topography designs.

Action Points for Your Startup or Small Business

1# Identify what type of IP forms the basis of your startup

Is it an invention? Is it the goodwill and reputation of your business tied up in your branding such as your logo and name?  Or is it a combination of different types of IP? This is the IP that you want to try and protect and prevent your competitors from using.

2# Consider which IPRs you will use to protect your IP

Remember inventions are protected by patents, your branding by trademarks and your website content by copyright.

3# Educate yourself on the basics of IP 

Even by reading this brief guide and the links contained within it you will be ahead of most of your competitors.  If you can go one step further and identify the IP your startup or small business has developed and how this could be protected you will set yourself and your business up for long term success and make your competitors think twice before they attempt to use your hard earned IP!


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