Enterprise: When It Comes to Patents It's the Way That You Do It; with the Importance of Intellectual Property Increasingly to the Fore, It Is More a Case of How You Protect What You Know. Shahid Naqvi Delves into the Murky Waters of Patents and Copyrights

Article excerpt

Byline: Shahid Naqvi

Picture the scenario: you are a small company and you have hit upon an invention that fits into a car exhaust, cutting the amount of fuel used by half.

What's more, the revolutionary gadget even converts exhaust fumes into a soothing perfume, meaning being stuck in a traffic jam would never again be an unpleasant experience.

You get the idea patented, go into production and wait for the orders to pour in.

Success seems inevitable, until - disaster: a big multi-national rips off the idea, goes into mass-production and corners the market by radically undercutting you on price.

Furious, you turn to the courts, believing the copyright you took out 18 months ago will protect you, forcing the company to pay millions of pounds back in compensation.

Unfortunately for you, things don't turn out this way. Tragically, you find the protection no longer applies and the rip-off firm goes on to conquer the world with your invention while you end up a shadow of your former self, propping up a seedy bar bemoaning your fate to whoever will listen.

Luckily, the case above is pure fiction. It could, however, easily be reality - and many an inventor will twinge with recognition of having their fingers burnt in this way.

With intellectual property increasingly stressed as one of the most important commodities in today's world, small companies need to make sure they are aware of how to safeguard it.

Laws covering patents, copyright, design and trademarks are notoriously complex. Anyone dealing in ideas and concepts - whether a new gadget, a design or work of art - would be shooting themselves in their own foot if they rushed blindly ahead without doing their homework.

Like in the above scenario, dreams can be shattered in an instant and it is a cruel lesson to learn - especially for a small business entrepreneur.

'There are patent agents who are trained solicitors able to guide people through the complexities of the laws,'said Patent Office marketing executive Jeremy Philpott.

'You would not buy a house without using a solicitor - there might some legal stumbling block which means you may buy the house but you don't own the garden, for example.

'It is the same with intellectual property.'

The biggest mistake made by people who have something to protect is confusing copyright law with patent law.

In essence, copyright is an automatic right which applies to original creative work that is fixed - an idea that has been turned into something, be it a design, book, film or record. A Delia Smith recipe, for example, is an idea which can be copied without problem - but photocopying the recipe from one of her books infringes copyright.

A patent, on the other hand, needs to be registered and relates to something that has been invented which the inventor wants to stop others reproducing.

Patents can be viewed as applying more to something solid like a gadget, while copyright usually has a more artistic or intellectual nature.

With both types of protection there are many pitfalls to look out for.

Copyright, for example, can often be something of a grey area and open to exploitation.

As Mr Philpott explains: 'Although you have the right automatically the down side is that without a register it becomes difficult to prove who owns what.

'People will claim they did something first, but someone else will say it was them. Unlike with patents, there is no register to provide a definitive answer.

'Also, if someone has a piece of work that someone else uses by coincidence and they can prove they didn't copy anyone, then there is no case.'

Patents can also be problematic. For example, patents only apply to the country of invention - in order to protect the invention in other parts of the world, patents need to be taken out in those countries. …