Q. What do I need to know about intellectual property?

A. Intellectual property rights are determined by a tangled ball of varying categories of legislation that requires patience to unpick. The categories are wide, overlapping and vague. Certain components entitle you to rights over your property while others require you to take prior action to ensure that you are protected.

The very first thing to point out is that the owner of intellectual property is usually the creator of the work unless the property was created whilst in a contract of employment. The property is then usually owned by the employer. Regardless of this convention, it is very important for intellectual property ownership to be clarified in contracts with your employees. This is particularly important when you are using a contractor or consultant since the legal lines of ownership are blurred.

Q. What can I do to protect my intellectual property?

A. You can protect a wide range of your works using copyright. To qualify the work must be your own. To protect yourself it must be written down or recorded in some way. To make sure you can prove this it is a good idea to send the item to yourself by registered post or lodge a copy of it with your solicitor. This can help you prove the date on which you “owned” your idea.

If you have invented something you can prevent anyone making, selling or importing your idea for 20 years with a patent. However, patents require a lot of research, a hefty application fee (£2000) and two to three years to gain approval.

You should also protect your design work. This does not just mean decorative or artistic work but also functional designs such as machinery. If you can prove that your design is yours you can stop – and get compensation from – someone else using your design. While you are entitled to this right, you are more likely to be able to successfully prove that you own your design if you register it with the Intellectual Property Office.

You can protect a company’s “trade secrets”. This is information which is yours, secret and of value to your business. Businesses that rely on customer lists, manufacturing techniques or business methods can make a case for protection under this aspect of the law. Again, guard against the vagaries of this law by specifying it as expressly confidential in a non-disclosure agreement in contracts with your employees. Jennifer Holroyd, consultant solicitor at Keystone Law says: “Some people are quite sceptical of the effectiveness of a non-disclosure agreement, but they are always worth having.”

Finally, a trademark can protect your brand. It is not enough to simply have an internet domain name or list your company at Companies House. Trademarks must be registered with the Intellectual Property Office for a fixed fee. Further information can be found on www.ipo.gov.uk

Q. Where can I learn more?

A. The British Library IP Business Centre offers regular free workshops, online courses and one-to-one advice on intellectual property. The library also has databases to search patents, trademarks, copyright, and registered designs from around the world.