Copycat-proofing your start-up: how to protect your intellectual property

3 February 2021 | Thoughts and Opinions

Copycat-proofing your start-up: how to protect your intellectual property

When starting out, your business and business ideas are your baby – processes, designs and products may be the result of years of ideation, testing and refinement, all leading up to the moment you take your business to market.

It is understandably infuriating, then, when a much larger business swoops in and reproduces your innovative product, selling it as their own for a fraction of the price to their massive customer base.

Though imitation of other brands’ products is nothing new – it is a problem which has been rampant in the fashion industry for several years now – the threat of copycatting was launched into the public eye only recently, when, thanks to Instagram, co-founders of British boutique underwear label Fruity Booty found a duplicate of their £60 vest top retailing for just £5 on Chinese website AliExpress.

Fashion is not the only industry to have been hit by a wave of copycatting – tech and household products have also been affected, with many designs being reproduced by competitors.

As a start-up or small business, it may seem as though your position in the market means that there is nothing you can do if a larger brand was to copy your idea. This isn’t the case.

While IP disputes can be a long and drawn-out procedure – Apple and Microsoft waged war for six years over the design of the graphical user interface – you can avoid a long, expensive legal battle by protecting your idea from the outset of your business activities.

Many entrepreneurs think that applying for a patent is the way forward, however it may not be necessary to apply for a patent immediately – you may be able to protect your intellectual property with proper documentation in the early stages.

Lindsay Gledhill, intellectual property partner at Harper James, says:

‘When starting out with a unique product or process, be mindful that you may not need to apply for a patent straight away. While some inventors may regret not applying early, it’s important to acknowledge the impact downstream patenting costs may have on your business.

‘First, ask yourself whether elements of it can be kept secret whilst in use by the customer. If so, you may be able to get the protection you need without incurring the cost and risk of filing patent applications. However, you will need to make careful records of the secret information in case there is ever a dispute about it.’

There are many different options for businesses large or small to protect and exploit their intellectual property. From utility models to trade secrets, patents to design rights and trade marks to copyright, discover which type of protection is best suited to your IP in our growth hub.

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