Protecting intellectual property (IP)

Intellectual property (IP) has been defined as ‘the product of someone’s mental efforts. Its value lies in its appeal to others who might wish to use it or the goods it describes’ (Irish Patents Office,

IP then relates to protecting someone’s idea from being commercialised by others. IP can be protected through 4 main methods:
• Patents
• Trade Marks
• Designs
• Copyrights

A word of warning at this point; applying for IP protection is a legal, technical, bureaucratic and potentially expensive process. This information is given to outline the possible options but cannot cover this subject in depth. Take time to get informed about this process yourself and take appropriate legal and technical advice before making any decision relating to this subject. This is not a subject for amateurs.

A patent is a legal protection that prevents anyone else using the specific innovation protected without the consent of the patent holder. It is valid only in countries where patent granted so you will probably need to get protection in several countries. Patents are time specific with a full-term patent valid for 20 years and a short-term patent is valid for 10 years. Whether you need a short- or long-term patent may depend on the life cycle of the invention; remembering that software, gadgets, computers etc may only have a 5 year life cycle before becoming obsolete and the expense of a 20 years patent may be questionable. Technically, there is no worldwide patent but there are agreements between several national patent offices which allow for multi-national protection (usually a European or international patent). To get a patent the invention must meet the following criteria:
• Novelty (it must be new and not done before)
• Inventive Step (it must bring an existing product or patentable item to a new stage of development
• Industrial Applicability (it must have a commercial application).

To apply for a patent you must apply through your national Patents Office. There are fees involved and you should check these out through your local patent office. If you need assistance with attaining a patent your can employ the assistance of a Patent Agent, who is a specialist consultant/lawyer who works exclusively in this field. Patent agents charge fees but it may speed up what can be a technical process to hire in an expert.

Trade marks
A trade mark can be defined as ‘any sign capable of being represented graphically which is capable of distinguishing the goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings’ (Trade Marks Act, 1996).

A trade mark (TM) protects your ‘brand’ or ‘name’ from being used by anyone else. You would normally apply through your national Patent’s Office. There are also Trade Mark Agents who can help you to apply for the TM but these charge additional fees to the Patent Office. Applying for a TM requires a considerable amount of research and database searching to ensure that your trade mark does not breach an already granted TM. There are initial application fees, registration fees and renewal fees applicable to trade marks.

A design ‘means the appearance of the whole or a part of a product resulting from the features of, in particular, the lines, contours, colour, shape, texture or materials of the product itself or its ornamentation’ (Irish Patents Office,

Applying for a design protection is similar in process to applying for a trade mark. You apply through your national Patent’s Office and there are fees applicable. Attaining a design protection also requires a lot of research and database searches and it may require hiring a professional to assist in this.

‘Copyright is the legal term, which describes the rights given to authors/creators of certain categories of work. Copyright protection extends to the following works:
• original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works,
• sound recordings, films,
• broadcasts, cable programmes,
• the typographical arrangement of published editions,
• computer programmes,
• original databases.
The owner of copyright is the author, meaning the person who creates the work.’
(Irish Patents Office,

Unlike the other forms of IP protection there is no formal registration process for a copyright, there is only legal protection from breach of copyright which requires the owner of the copyright suing the party that breached the right. To apply copyright on a piece of work you should write the following formula; © Copyright [your name], [date].

Copyrights have legally defined durations between 50 and 70 years depending on the category. There are a series of legislative bills and orders relating to copyrights in several countries so to gain full protection you should take specialist legal advice

So to summarise, attaining IP protection is a technical area – not for amateurs. You should always conduct a cost-benefit analysis before going ahead as the financial benefit from protecting the Ip must outweigh the time and cost involved. I cannot emphasise the importance of taking appropriate technical and legal advice and make sure you know what you are doing before you take action. IP covers a wide range of concepts and ideas and IP Protection = Commercial protection. The development of new ideas and innovation is very important for the advancement of society but it is a process for which caution is always recommended.