Your business: How to protect your intellectual property

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Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

It’s never too early to protect your ideas, designs, models and branding.

Imagine building your own bike rack because nothing on the market works for you. Then, your friends and family notice it and ask you to make one for them. Soon enough, you realise there’s a business opportunity here and you start making more and selling them online.

While you’ve had your hands full fulfilling orders, an established bike manufacturer spots your project, has their in-house team replicate it and patent the design. They sell the product you invented under their brand to the mass market (and likely at a lower price).

What recourse, do you, as a small business owner, have? The answer is: nothing – unless you protected your idea when you first developed the design (i.e., your intellectual property).

Sadly, most startups don’t.

Too many new entrepreneurs ignore the matter of intellectual property thinking it is an expense they can’t (and don’t really need to) cover, or that it’s unnecessary as no one will steal their idea. But, registering your intellectual property not only prevents copycats, it also makes your business more appealing to investors. A patent or trademark is an asset that can increase in value as your business grows.

How to protect your intellectual property

Registering your intellectual property should be done as early as possible during the startup stage of your business. It is an important step in taking your new product or service to market. If it’s already in the public space, it can become more complex to protect. 

There are four types of IP protection:

1.      Copyright

This is usually associated with music, art, writing or photography, but also protects works such as instruction manuals, software code, databases and computer programmes. It is given to the creator of an original work or their employer to prevent the work from being copied or reproduced without permission. While copyright doesn’t need to be registered, it is an asset that can be sold or licensed to others.

2.      Patent

Patenting protects the conceptualisation of a new product or process. It prevents others in South Africa from manufacturing, using or selling what you have invented. A patent provides protection for up to 20 years but cannot be applied to computer programmes, artistic works, mathematical methods, games, plans or schemes, business methods, biological inventions and methods for treating humans and animals. More information about the process can be obtained from the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC).

3.      Design registration

The shape, form, pattern or configuration of a product can also be registered to protect competitors from copying it. You can register two types of designs: Aesthetic is a new and original design, judged by its shape; configuration or ornamentation (e.g., a pattern fabric), while functional is also new and not commonplace, and its shape or configuration is vital to the functioning of the product (e.g., an ergonomic chair). You can learn more about registering your design on the CIPC website.

4.      Trademark

A trademark applies to trading names, logos or slogans and prevents anyone else from using it or something that is confusingly similar. The CIPC is responsible for the registration of trademarks and you can even look up the elements of your business’s brand to see whether they have already been trademarked online. Some words, e.g., "24 hours, cheese and server" cannot be trademarked because they cannot distinguish one company’s products or services from another. They would also make it impossible for other businesses with operations linked to these terms to use them. 

If any of these are applicable to your business, you should consider having a lawyer assist you in registering your intellectual property. It could seem like an expensive exercise, but doing it in the early stages will cost you a lot less than defending your intellectual property will be if it is infringed.



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