What IP can you protect?

IP includes a very diverse group of business assets. Although we talk about it as a single concept, it’s actually a collection of several very specific rights. Some relate to your brand, some to technical inventions, and others to your product or how your product or service is made or provided. Knowing the difference will stand you in good stead – especially for future investor conversations. Here are the main rights you should be familiar with:

  • Copyright: Protects literary, artistic and dramatic works from copying without permission. Key areas for start-up businesses include the content on your website/blog, the source code, your social media content, photographs you’ve taken and recipes or studio/instructor manuals.
  • Design rights: Protects aesthetic designs, if they are new. Normally just for products, but other things like surface decoration or packaging can also be protected. Rules on getting design rights differ between countries – if you’re a product led business, consider BEFORE you make your product design public, due to restrictions in places like China.
  • Trade marks: This deals with your brand name and logo. Scope of protection is given in relation to a specific range of goods/services – think about what you want your business to do in 3-5 years. Which countries do you want to be operating in? Trade marks are invaluable as they allow you to stop others coming too close to your brand, helping you preserve your important market space.
  • Patents: Technical inventions that must be completely novel and inventive. Conveys an absolute monopoly over the use of that technology, but only lasts 20 years. Technical businesses will normally invest in patent protection early on and it requires the help of a specialist attorney to describe the invention. Patents relate to very definite technological solutions – general ideas or business methods cannot be protected. It also gets tricky when thinking about software.
  • Trade secrets & Confidentiality: Sometimes, secrecy is the best protection. This takes trust and planning, but can have significant benefits. One main benefit is that nearly any information can be confidential if confidentiality is agreed, and you can secure this protection via a simple non-disclosure agreement (NDA). It’s crucial for things like business plans, know-how, customer lists or pricing models, which are not protected by any other IP right.

It’s useful to understand these terms – using them in the right context shows you are serious about the longevity of your business and marks you out as more sophisticated than the next founder. Misusing them can give the opposite impression, especially in front of business partners or investors – now that you know there’s no such thing as copyrighting your brand or patenting an idea, you won’t fall into that trap.