Finance · 18 January 2016

The sole trader’s three-step guide to intellectual property protection

Protection is key, if you don't want others walking off with your ideas
Protection is key, if you don’t want others walking off with your ideas

While a strong brand name and loyalty are important, sole traders should not run the risk of underestimating how beneficial intellectual property protection is. As such, we’ve got a three-step guide to reduce risk and keep assets, which can be financially impressive, from harm.

(1)   The importance of your intellectual property

Today’s consumers, especially the tech-savvy, are all too happy to go online and read reviews and recommendations when it comes to making purchases, so a solid service and reputation are key to win customers.

However, rivals and copycats can pop up overnight in order to replicate the success of your business, which is why it’s important to ensure intellectual property protection of assets is done appropriately. Neglecting this can result in losing market share, investments and value.

Michael Sandys, an intellectual property protection law specialist and director at Jackson Canter solicitors, said: “Sole traders should certainly think about intellectual property. Sole traders often have intellectual property. It might be a brand or a trademark and a reputation in the marketplace. Their name is important when dealing with customers as it distinguishes them in the marketplace.”

(2)   Intellectual property protection

Entrepreneurs must ensure that intellectual property is categorised and identified alongside other business information, such as company name, logos, bespoke tech, websites and trading names.

This can be detailed by evaluating how customers refer to the business and what could be at risk should a rival launch with a similar proposition.

Elizabeth Ward, founder of intellectual property law firm Virtuoso Legal, said:  “A lot of companies make mistakes to begin with. For example, they often embark on a project without looking what patents already exist. They go off inventing when somebody has already done it.”

With that in mind, business owners hoping to establish a trademark should do some checks via Companies House and the broader internet to make sure the name and trademark aren’t already occupied.

A more thorough due diligence can be investigated with a trademark attorney or specialist intellectual property protection legal outfit, and advice should be sought sooner rather than later. Running risks and failing to understand complexities early on can result in future problems that could damage finances due to unanticipated costs.

If checks come back clear, the trademark can be registered with the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) – the only registration process that will result in a legal brand name.

Sandys added: “I advise businesses to take advice as soon as possible. You don’t want to be trading for three years and then find out someone is using the same name.”

With regard to the IP protection of bespoke tech, for example, applications can be made based on the design and unique aspects of the products and these should be done well ahead of launches to market.

And in the event you’re worried about your idea leaking when talking to third parties, a solicitor can produce a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) so that you may talk in confidence.

And remember, intellectual property protection of assets should be carried out in all regions of commercial interest.

(3)   Making your intellectual property profitable

Businesses should have intellectual property audited in order to find monetisation opportunities, according to Ward – company with a great public perception has the potential to be considered very valuable.

Indeed, customers will buy when they like the name, design and brand values linked to the company – just look at Apple and its iPhone, iPad and other assorted items.

Entrepreneurs should not think of intellectual property as an expense, but a financial asset with the chance to grow significantly in value.

Ward said: “IP is something of value to the company. But, too often, it is simply regarded as a cost.

“People need to realise that their IP is likely to grow in value over time and so it is an investment in itself, as well as legally protecting the underlying business investment.”

Regardless of size, all companies should consider IP and the beneficial impact it can have. Rewards can be considerable and costs aren’t always expensive.

Take advice before it’s too late and develop your intellectual property as an essential business asset.

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Marcelino Castrillo is MD of business banking at RBS in September 2015.   Prior to to that, Castrillo was MD of SME banking at Santander, where he was responsible for leading the challenge of scaling Santander’s business bank and managed the business through a period of significant change.

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