How to legally protect something you have created

Chris Hawkes talks to Cambridge Leadership College students about copyright
Chris Hawkes talks to Cambridge Leadership College students about copyright

In a fast-moving economy with constant innovation, how do you protect your ideas? We asked Chris Hawkes to talk to Cambridge Leadership College students about intellectual property rights as part of our Business Building Blocks series. A self-confessed trademark geek, Chris gave our students a run through of the types of IP protection they might need as they develop their businesses.

Chris started his career as a criminal law barrister but hated it and decided to follow his interest in music. He was a DJ and produced music for years and wanted to know how to protect what he was creating. He ended up in intellectual property law.

Copyright and patents

What can you protect and how do copyright and patents work? Chris explained to our students that you can’t protect an idea. You need to have expressed that idea somehow. One of the best known areas of intellectual property is copyright. This can protect the words on a page, music, art, dramatic works. It does have its limitations but can be very useful when the other rights fail you. It is intended to protect artistic works.

Patents are intended to protect invented products and processes. They are granted. You can’t get one automatically. You can use patents to lock out your competitors.

Trade secrets and confidentiality are closely related to patents. If someone tells you their idea in confidence it is an informal type of trade secret or confidentiality. There is a body of case law that protects secrets. Examples of trade secrets are the formula for Coca-Cola or the blend of spices KFC uses in the batter for their chicken.

How to protect your brand

You can use design law to protect the look and feel of something, for example a logo. Design rights are one of the cheaper rights to obtain. The look of a logo can be protected however this isn’t always straightforward. The three stripes of Adidas are very hard to protect and there has been a lot of litigation around it. Colours can also be protected alongside logos as well as the look of letters in a logo.

A trademark is a badge of origin. It is meant to protect a brand. You can protect your trademark indefinitely. No-one should be able to steal your identity. Trademarks allow you to protect a number of different things. There are 45 classes of trademarks. The more classes you protect, the more expensive it is.

Flags have their own special protection in trademark law. There are systems of law for royal insignia as well. Gi – geographic indicator is where a trademark is associated to a particular place such as ‘champagne’.

Sound marks can also be part of a brand trademark, along with colour marks and word marks.

Passing off is when a company produces something in a way which deliberately suggests it is something it isn’t.

Data has value

Database rights are an offshoot of copyright law. Football data was a leading case for this. Statistics about player performance and so on was then used by betting companies. There is a value in that data if someone has taken the time to produce it.

Employment contracts can also protect IP. As an employer you need to be really clear if you expect to own the rights to whatever your employees are creating.

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