One of the main concerns for anyone designing a new product is how to protect their idea from competitors. Here we look at what you can do to achieve this in a realistic and practical way.
Most issues of intellectual property protection (IP) come down to disclosure. Once you’ve talked about or published an idea you can’t protect it - because it makes it hard prove that you thought of it first. That said, you should always keep clear records of when you developed or modified an idea or design.
The first thing you should do is prepare a mutual Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) which basically keeps shared knowledge confidential between two parties. You can get a solicitor to draw one up, but the UK Intellectual Property Office offers clear advice on NDAs here.
Secondly, you will need to work out which forms of IP are relevant to you. For example, if you are developing a manufactured product you will be mainly concerned with design rights, registered designs and patents. If you are also creating new music, writing or video, you will be more concerned with copyright. If you are creating a new business, you may need to register your trade mark. For more information on all these issues, take a look at the Intellectual Property Office site at:
In this document, we are going to focus on design rights, registered designs and patents.
Patents protect new technical concepts in products and processes. Patents need to involve products or processes that are genuinely new, and not an obvious modification of something that already exists. The idea must also be capable of industrial application.
Patents are not, however, only for those ‘eureka’ moments when someone develops a new chemical or material. The novel application of an existing technology can also be patentable, so if you think you’ve come up with a new idea, check out whether you can patent it. This can be done either through the Gov.uk site (see links above) or through patent agents who will carry out searches for you - for a fee. The Patent Office will charge you around £300.00 to process a patent application, but remember that professional help, including search fees, particularly if you want get international patent coverage, may run into tens of thousands of pounds. Patents last up to 20 years, provided you keep paying the annual renewal fees.
You also need to bear in mind that patent infringement is not a criminal offence, and that any disputes need to be settled through civil courts, with all the expense that involves.
However, a granted patent does create something you can sell or license in return for a royalty, so it is always worth considering. Just make sure you have the will - and resources - to defend it.
Design rights apply automatically to the internal and external appearance of any new product you develop, but they offer limited protection. Design rights do not, for example, cover any two dimensional qualities like surface patterns.
Design rights are automatic (you don’t need to apply for anything), but they are hard to enforce and you need to keep very clear records to show when you created your design. They also only last for a maximum of fifteen years.
Applying for a registered design is the best way to protect two and three dimensional product ideas. Design registration creates more formal protection which can last up to 25 years and is inexpensive to arrange. Like design right, a registered design only protects appearance, rather than technical issues like function and mechanisms, but it is the best way to protect your ideas and/or obtain commercial return through licensing, etc. The process is quick and simple and costs less than fifty pounds per design. For more information, look at the Gov.uk website links above.
Is it worth it?
It makes complete sense to do all you can to protect your ideas, by using NDAs when you talk to possible collaborators, telling them only what they need to know, and protecting your ideas using the appropriate safeguards (patents, etc). These safeguards will be taken seriously by most companies and could result in good, long term income for your business from licensing arrangements or the sale of the idea. If less scrupulous people copy your work without permission, you will then have to decide if you will be better off fighting them through the courts, or moving on and creating another world-beating product!