Frequently Asked Questions About Patents, Trade Marks and Copyright

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If you’ve got a great idea for a business – whether that’s a great name, product idea or logo, you don’t want anybody else to steal it.

That’s where the world of intellectual property (IP) comes in, offering solutions like patents, trade marks and copyrights to protect your ideas and prevent others from profiting from your hard work. 

In this guide, we’ll cover all the frequently asked questions about intellectual property, including the difference between patents, trademarks and copyright, what you can protect, what happens if someone violates your trade mark or patent and finally, how to apply for one if it’s the right move for your business.

What are the differences between patents, trade marks and copyright? 

Generally speaking, there are three main types of protection that can be used to safeguard your ideas: trade marks, patents and copyright. 

  • Trade marks are used to protect words, phrases, symbols, logos, sounds or designs. For example, famous trade marks include the ‘Ba dad da da, I’m Lovin’ It’ McDonalds Jingle, The Nike tick (and its position on trainers!), and the shape of Coco-Cola bottles.
  • Patents protect products, processes, or even significant improvements on existing inventions. They prevent others from making, using, selling, or importing your invention without your permission.
  • Copyright protects original works of authorship, including literary works (books, articles), artistic works (paintings, sculptures), music, films, and software.

As a business, it’s more likely that you will only be interested in trade marks and patens rather than copyright. To find out more about what they cover and the differences between them, discover our guide on the differences between trade marks and patents.

How do I apply for a patent or trade mark? 

Before applying for a trade mark or patent, we’d recommend double-checking all of the requirements to make sure that your idea sits within them. It might also be worth chatting to your legal advisor for help, or even with your accountant to help you manage the money side of the application. 

You can register for a trade mark through the website, or via post. This involves a short, simple application where you provide details of the trade mark that you want to register, as well as your business (or personal!) details, and the type of goods or services you want to use your trade mark for. 

This process will cost around £170, and take around 3 to 4 months to be approved. 

On the other hand, applying for a patent is a lot more complicated and time-consuming, with the entire process taking around 4 years to complete.  

You can either choose to apply for one yourself with the UK Intellectual Property Office, or delegate this task to a patent agent or legal professional instead. It’s like registering a business – you can either jump through the hoops yourself or leave it in the capable hands of a company formation agent. 

Inside your patent application, you will include a detailed description of your patent, including any relevant drawings and diagrams, as well as your personal information. Once you have sent your application, you’ll be given a filing date and a receipt. 

Once you have a filing date, you can start using or selling your invention before your patent comes in, as you have an official record of a patent application, which will prevent anyone from also filing for the same patent. 

Having a patent pending is already protecting you from being copied as no one can fill the same patent.

A year later, you will be asked to submit more detail to your patent application, including: 

  • Claims that define what protection you need
  • An abstract giving a brief summary of the invention
  • A request for a search with a fee, which the UK Intellectual Property Office will use to search for any similar inventions and create a report of their findings

18 months after your filing date, your patent will be automatically published and made publicly available. However, this does not mean that your patent has been granted yet. We did warn you that this was a long process. 

After the publication, you’ll need to pay another fee within 6 months to request an examination. If you’re familiar with PhD’s, this step is like defending your thesis, so you can finally become a doctor.

Basically, the UK Intellectual Property Office might write to you with reasons why the invention might not be classed as new or might be seen as obvious. Then, you will be given a time limit to respond and persuade them why your invention deserves a patent. 

Once the UK Intellectual Office agrees that your invention is new and inventive, your patent will be granted at long last. 

How do you get copyright protection in the UK?

Unlike with patents or trade marks, you don’t have to apply for copyright protection, as it automatically applies when you create certain material, such as website content.

You can add the international copyright symbol – © – your name and year of creation to your original material to signal that you own the copyright. However, this isn’t necessary for the material to be protected.

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Do trade marks, patents and copyright work in different countries? 

Patents and trade marks only apply in the country you register them in. If you’re looking to register a trade mark or patent outside the UK, you will need to look at that country’s individual requirements and restrictions. 

For example, in the USA, you can file for different types of patents unavailable in the UK. These include design patents for any new, original and ornamental design for manufacture, as well as plant patents, which cover anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces a distinct or new variety of plants. 

On the other hand, copyright tends to work the same way in other countries as it does in the UK.

However, it’s covered by treaties, which means you need to check if the country you want your copyright to be protected in is a member of one of the five treaties the UK is a member of.

If the country has signed one of these treaties, your copyright should be automatically protected in that country. But different countries have different rules as to what is covered, so it’s wise to check out the laws for that country.

What happens if someone is using my patent or trade mark? 

So, what happens if you have a registered trade mark or patent, and you discover that someone is using them without your permission? 

The simple answer is that you can claim against anyone that uses your property. The long and boring answer is that you have to follow a set of procedures that are slightly different depending on whether it’s a trade mark or patent. 

If you find that someone has used your trade mark, it’s your responsibility to make sure that no one is using your trade mark – which means that the first step is to send cease and desist letters. These letters (made by your legal counsel) basically tell the other party they are using a trade mark and need to stop. In most cases, the use is accidental and will stop as soon as they get a letter. 

If they don’t stop using your trade mark, you will be allowed to start an intellectual property mediation process. This is where a third party steps in, settling the disagreement with solutions like:

  • A co-existence agreement, where you both can use a trade mark but in different markets that do not compete, so no harm is done to either business. 
  • A licensing agreement, where they continue to use your trade mark but pay you a licensing fee for its use.

If no settlement can be reached, then you will be able to file for a court order to take compensation for damages or loss of business. 

If you own a patent, you can skip straight to applying for an injunction and claim back any compensation from the other party. This is done through the High Court, the Patents County Court or the UK Intellectual Property Office.

However, there’s one little caveat here. You can’t file an injunction until your patent is approved. So if you’re still waiting, you must let the other party continue to use your invention until your patent is approved.

Then you can file and backdate any compensation from the date your application was published.

How to enforce copyright?

If you become aware of a copyright infringement, it’s up to you to enforce your right. Here are the steps you can take to enforce your copyright:

  1. Cease and desist letter – make the infringer aware of the copyright breach by sending them a cease and desist letter, asking them to stop using your original work
  2. Mediation – if the cease and desist letter didn’t work, you can contact the Intellectual Property Office to ask them to mediate between you and the infringer. This will cost you though.
  3. Court proceedings – if mediation isn’t successful either, you can take the infringing party to court. But again, this will involve costs.

It’s advisable to consult a solicitor if your cease and desist letter hasn’t shown any results to get advice on how best to proceed.

Are trade marks and patents worth it? 

Trade marks and patents can provide a good level of protection for your idea or invention if you think that others may use it to profit from your good work.

However, there’s no denying that they do come at a cost to your business, both through registration and renewal fees. If you don’t think your idea is in danger, this money may be best spent elsewhere. 

Even if you’re planning on applying for a patent or a trade mark, we’d recommend that you keep your inventions or ideas confidential for now.

This will stop anyone from seeing your idea and swooping in to take it up before the paperwork goes through – or even stop them from registering the idea as their own in the worst-case scenario. 

Whether you choose to use trade marks or patents in your business or not, we’ll be on hand to give you the latest business advice, news and tips to grow your company. 

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Business4Beginners has been advising new businesses owners since 2013. The founder, Paul Bryant, has created, grown and sold several successful businesses and remains the editor and fact-checker of all content published on the site.
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