Intellectual Property Rights Are a Sign of the Times; Intellectual Property May Sound Dry, but It's Something You Have to Be Aware of as a Business If You Don't Want to See Your Ideas Blowing Away in the Wind. Ahead of Wallace and Gromit's Appearance in Newcastle, JOHN HILL Talks to Some Other Folk Who Get Animated about Patents and Trademarks

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REMEMBER that slight feeling of annoyance you got when you found someone had taken the email address or Twitter username you wanted? Now imagine it's your new business name, and that you've already registered it on Companies House and printed all your business cards. Feel free to lie down and iron out the knot in your stomach.

This is just one example Lawrence Smith-Higgins gives to demonstrate the importance of keeping on top of the processes and pitfalls surrounding intellectual property, and it also happens to be a personal anecdote.

He remembers an acquaintance popping over to his house one day to ask him to carry out a quick search on his chosen business name, only to find out that it was a trademark registered by a major corporation.

He says: "It was in the same area of goods and services too. They had no choice but to cut their losses and change the name, even though all the literature had been produced and the business cards had been printed ready for launch."

Keeping abreast of intellectual property isn't just about picking a name, however. It can also be relevant in areas such as researching whether your invention is a new idea, making sure no one can copy it, and protecting the revenue that will keep your business running.

The Intellectual Property Office is keen to raise awareness of the importance of this sort of practice, and as a result it's bringing an exhibition to the Life centre in Newcastle, centred around two of Britain's most-famous animated inventors. Aardman creations Wallace and Gromit are the "stars" of A World of Cracking Ideas, which will be in the city from April 16 to October 30. The Cracking Ideas exhibition showcases some ideas that have already changed the way the world works, and also allows participants to come up with their own at Create Stations.

It is designed to teach students how to learn the value of their creativity, but also to wake up any businesses that are still not properly using patents, copyright, trademarks and registered design.

According to an Intellectual Property Office survey of 20,000 businesses released last week, only 15% of small companies quizzed had ever sought advice on issues such as patenting, and only 11% of SMEs had assigned responsibility for monitoring their intellectual property rights.

Smith-Higgins says: "That's scary, from my point of view. There are significant opportunities around intellectual property, but also severe financial risks. You can expose your own IP to unnecessary risks or get into trouble for using someone else's IP.

Lots of venture capital firms say they won't look at anything unless there's significant attention given to intellectual property and its potential."

Businesses interested in looking into their intellectual property position can take advantage of an "IP health check" tool on the IPO website, which allows businesses to receive a confidential report with tailored recommendations.

Smith-Higgins is the head of business outreach and education for the IPO, and spent 15 years working for construction and service sector SMEs before joining the Patent Office in 1989.

He says: "It's important businesses take full commercial advantage of their ideas without leaving themselves open to threats."

In the case of applying for patents, there are various tests the product should pass. It must be a novel idea that has not yet been published, with an industrial application. The scope of the patent can also vary. Some companies apply for a patent that merely applies in Great Britain, while other companies have collected patents for countries all over the world.

However, the increasing cost of patenting worldwide is such that Higgins urges a business shouldn't be looking at a patent in a country unless it plans to immediately or imminently operate there.

Smith-Higgins says: "It shouldn't be seen as something you'd do for a hobby. …