Nicola Bridgett, Senior International Trade Advisor at UK Trade & Investment, explains how to protect your intellectual property when you come to export.

UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) is the government department that helps UK-based companies succeed in the global economy. We help companies grapple with the complexities of taking their products and services abroad, such as how to handle intellectual property (IP).

IP is owned by all businesses, big and small, and is a sign of innovation and skill. Protecting this should be high on the agenda when doing business overseas. After all, you could spend many years developing your brand or product for it to be suddenly lost or devalued through theft or fraud, impacting the ability to grow your business internationally.

Here are a few tips to help you avoid some of the potential pitfalls:

1. Do a simple audit

It is important to recognise what IP you own. Conducting an audit doesn’t need to be arduous or complicated. Simply note all the copyright, designs, trademarks etc that you use. These will be both registered and unregistered ones. Make sure you have a copy of any evidence of ownership or permissions to use the IP of others. This may be licenses you have purchased, eg, images, music, databases. The aim of this exercise is that you know what you own, what you have permission for and what you can utilise.

2. Register your brand

There are different types of protection you can take for your IP. All companies will have registered their company name, most will have registered their domain name, but less will have registered their brand as a trademark. This is straightforward to do and something all businesses should consider.

Many companies I have met have said they think they are too small to be affected by infringement. However, what companies should remember is the risk of unintentionally infringing on others.

One example I came across was a small UK cosmetics brand which was exporting to the US but had not registered their trademark anywhere. Because they had raised their profile internationally, they were soon challenged by another company with a similar brand name who was registered both here and in the US. As a result, the company had to completely rebrand themselves.

So by registering trademarks early you can resolve these issues from the start and concentrate on growing in your target market.

3. Consider the legal variations of IP internationally

There are important variations in the legal standing for IP in different countries. When you export you need to understand these differences and plan for them.

For example, in the EU there is a formal and substantive examination of design registration applications. This means that examiners look at each application in some detail. In China on the other hand, the examination is not substantive. This means that as long as you pay the correct fee, fill in the correct form and it is a design, you will be able to register.

All this, however, may not fully protect you. In most countries there is a grace period. This is the time allowed from initial disclosure of a design to the application for registration. The examination in China does not consider this.

So if you are thinking of registering designs in China check you are not paying to register something which is already in the public domain for longer than the grace period. Should these designs be infringed  in China, you may lose, regardless of design registrations in place.

4. Make use of expert advice 

Companies should make the most of IP and, once armed with some basic facts, it shouldn’t be feared. After all, intellectual property laws are there to promote innovation and design, and the UK has no shortage of exciting  design companies!

You can seek more advice and get in touch with UK Trade & Investment at enquiries@ukti.gsi.gov.uk or 020 7215 5000. The Intellectual Property Office and the EU IPR Helpdesk can also help. 

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