Few businesses start without a 'Eureka!' moment of some description. It may be a scientific breakthrough, a new way of doing something, an inspired brand name or a strikingly original design. But if a matter of intellectual property is central to the success of your business, you can't afford not to protect it - otherwise your competitors may not simply steal your idea, but also could prevent your using it.
IDENTIFY WHAT TO PROTECT. Seek help from a patent agent, who will advise on which forms of protection you may require for your idea. Protection falls into four main categories: a patent will protect the way something works; design registration protects how something looks; trademark registration protects the name by which something is known, and copyright protects the way something is expressed in print or broadcast.
IDENTIFY HOW TO PROTECT IT. Some products may need to be protected under all four categories, but this can be an expensive exercise, so you will have to decide which of its characteristics are crucial to the commercial viability of your product. The Patent Office also handles registration for designs and trademarks.
PROTECT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Tibor Gold, head of intellectual property at the Stephenson Harwood law firm, warns: 'Venture capitalists tend not to invest in a business unless they can see there is intellectual property protection already in place - this is something they increasingly expect to see in the business plan.' The problem with patents, he says, is that a year after your initial application, which should cost about £1,500, you need to spend a further £5,000 to £15,000 to get overseas protection. Ideally, you should consider protection costs when raising start-up funds.
PROTECT IN ALL KEY MARKETS. Ideas have become the latest global currency. Like capital, they cross borders almost instantly. If you don't protect a name, design, or invention in other important countries, somebody else will do it for you - and you may have to buy back the rights at a later date.
DON'T RELY ON JUST A NAME. It used to be the case that merely using a name conferred virtually as much protection in the UK as a registered trademark. Since the 1994 Trade Marks Act, however, that isn't the case: someone who registers a name will have superior rights. But you must use a registered trademark within five years or protection will lapse. You don't have to use a patented idea or registered design, but it could be expensive not to, as you have to keep paying to renew your protection.
DEPEND ON SECRECY AT YOUR PERIL. The recipe of Coca-Cola may have been safeguarded for 113 years (no mean feat in the 20th-century business world), but if a disgruntled employee jumps ship, you could be in trouble. The main argument for trying to keep your invention secret is that, under patent law, you must publish your invention and, once that patent has expired, the product or process is free for anyone to copy. Thus patent drugs eventually are wiped out by generic versions. With the exception of drugs, however, few inventions remain worth keeping secret after 20 years, particularly where technology is concerned.
GO FOR MAXIMUM PROTECTION. Gold says: 'I think the most common mistake in this area is that most people relax too early. They don't look after their intellectual property protection, but it requires creative maintenance.' Japanese companies file new patents and registrations on every small modification they make to a product, he points out, in effect continually raising barriers for any would-be competitor, while businesses in the UK too often do just the bare minimum.
DON'T SAY: 'We can't afford this patent stuff right now. We'll do it later when we've made a bit of money.'
DO SAY: 'If you persist in infringing the name Taystee Toast(TM), we will be forced to begin legal action.'.