When running a business, it’s essential to have safeguards in place to protect your intellectual property (IP) and confidential information. Otherwise, your business will be vulnerable to having its valuable work and branding stolen or copied.
We’ve set out below some key steps that you can take to protect your confidential information and IP.
Use a non-disclosure agreement
A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is a legal agreement which protects your confidential information (such as customer and supplier lists, business plans, intellectual property and know-how, and financial records).
By requiring the recipient of confidential information to sign an NDA, you can:
set out how they can use the confidential information;
prohibit them from disclosing the information without permission; and
require them to give back or destroy confidential information at your request.
NDAs can be one-way (where the recipient must keep information confidential but you have minimal confidentiality obligations yourself) or mutual (where you and the recipient have the same obligations of confidentiality to each other).
Common situations where NDAs are useful include:
dealing with potential business investors;
engaging new contractors or suppliers;
beginning a new project; or
creating a new product or inventing something.
In particular, if you disclose information about your invention/s without having an NDA in place, you could potentially lose the right to patent that invention later on.
Having a signed NDA in place before disclosing information helps you to bring a legal claim for misuse of information, and provides a powerful deterrent to the recipient against misusing the information in the first place. However, even with an NDA in place you should still be cautious about disclosing any particularly sensitive confidential information as it can be difficult and costly to enforce NDAs.
Registering your intellectual property
Registering a trade mark prevents other businesses from using branding that is too similar to yours. A trade mark registration lasts for ten years and can be renewed as often as you like (if you’re still using it).
Trade marks must be distinctive, and can cover a wide range of branding (such as company names, logos, slogans, sounds, and more). You need to decide what categories of goods and services your trade mark will cover, and apply through the UK IPO. Sparqa Legal’s step-by-step guides and Q&A guide you through the trade mark registration process.
You can protect the look and shape of your designs by registering them. Registering your design/s gives you a longer period of protection and a broader range of protection compared to unregistered design rights. However, registration may not be appropriate in a fast-moving industry (eg fashion).
Patents give you the exclusive right to use and reproduce your inventions, for up to 20 years. However, applying for a patent can be time consuming and costly, and you should engage the help of a professional. UK patents do not protect your invention from being copied overseas, so you may also need advice on international protection.
Protecting an invention by keeping it as a trade secret can provide a longer period of protection than a patent would. If you choose to do this, you will need to enter into robust confidentiality agreements, keep documents containing trade secrets labelled, secure and only accessible by certain people, and give staff ongoing training on secrecy measures.
Making it clear your work is protected by copyright
Copyright prevents people from using, copying and distributing your work. Copyright protection is automatic when you create an original creative work (you cannot register copyright).
However, it’s still a good idea to notify others that copyright in your work belongs to you. Although not a legal requirement, you can use the international ‘©’ mark followed by your name and the year of creation to help protect your work in some countries overseas and to notify others of your copyright.
If your work is not stored electronically, consider sending a hard copy to your solicitor or to yourself via a date-stamped delivery service so you can prove that your work existed at a particular point in time.
Monitoring your intellectual property
You will generally need to monitor potential infringements of your intellectual property yourself, as the UK IPO won’t do this for you. Ways to monitor include:
searching the internet, online marketplaces and social media;
using automated tools like Google Alerts to notify you when a certain phrase is published on the internet;
using the Companies House Register Search to search for companies which have been registered with similar names to yours;
checking for domain names which have been registered using similar names to your business;
monitoring new trade mark applications in the UK Trade Marks Journal; and/or
hiring another business to monitor for IP infringements on your behalf (however, this can be very costly).
If you discover IP infringements, you can take a number of steps including writing a cease and desist letter to the person who may be infringing your IP rights, using an online marketplace’s reporting tools to report infringements, contacting the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit, or taking court proceedings.
The content in this article is up-to-date at the date of publishing. The information provided is for information purposes only, and is not for the purpose of providing legal advice. ©Sparqa Limited 2021. All rights reserved.