Meena Murrin: Intellectual property protection an essential

Dragon's Den. Picture: BBC
Dragon's Den. Picture: BBC
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IP can help businesses make their mark, writes Meena Murrin

In the first episode of the latest series of BBC’s Dragons’ Den, only one pitch specifically mentioned intellectual property (IP) protection. That pitch attracted investment from three of the five Dragons and serves as a reminder of how crucial IP is for businesses looking to secure investment. Having an IP portfolio provides a straightforward signal to potential investors that a company is more likely to have a sustainable competitive advantage that will allow it to succeed in the marketplace.

Simply put, IP relates to the ownership and protection of ideas and typically includes trade marks, patents, designs and copyright. Businesses often say they want to “patent their logo” or “copyright their company name”. However, the terms trade mark, patent and copyright are not interchangeable.

On a basic level, patents protect how things work, trade marks protect what things are called and where things come from (identifiers of origin), designs protect what things look like and copyright protects original works of authorship, such as poetry, novels, movies and songs.

Trade mark and patent attorneys are specialist lawyers, specifically qualified to advise on IP law in the UK and further afield. They will offer strategic advice on the clearance, registration, enforcement and exploitation of IP. In contrast, IP solicitors will usually be English or Scots law qualified, and will deal with validity and infringement matters, litigation and alternative dispute resolution.

Trade marks are a key component of a brand. For many start-ups and SMEs, a strong brand identity is essential in establishing a market position and differentiating from competitors. Customers recognise the names, logos, slogans, colours, shapes and even sounds, and in turn choose to purchase your products or services rather than those of your competitors. These powerful assets can be protected by way of trade mark registrations – and preventing other businesses from trading on your good name helps protect you against unfair competition.

There exists a common misconception that you can’t protect a word in common usage as a trade mark. The fact that English words, when applied arbitrarily or suggestively, can function as trade marks sometimes comes as a surprise. So long as the words aren’t too descriptive, and are distinctive enough to differentiate one business from another, common words can function as an identifier of commercial origin.

For celebrities, trade mark registrations are one of the means by which they can seek to leverage catchphrases and names to diversify their revenue through perfume, clothing and other goods.

Additionally, owning a trade mark registration in the UK does not mean that a mark is protected worldwide. If overseas expansion is part of your strategy, you should clarify that you are free to use and register your trade mark in each market of interest.

Finally, one of the most common misconceptions is that IP protection is expensive. While there are costs involved, it is certainly cheaper to get the right advice from the outset rather than risk having to fight infringement action, and possibly incur the costs of rebranding or recalling products later on and ensure you are in the best shape for any dealings with dragons.

• Meena Murrin is a registered and European trade mark attorney with Marks & Clerk and advises on trade mark law and practice