First published in Sussex Enterprise's Business Edge magazine March 2009

There are many horror stories about copycat manufacturers stealing designs of products ranging from microprocessors to carpet patterns.

Although Chinese copies have hit the headlines in recent years, authorities in many other countries don’t pay much attention to intellectual property either.

A survey by Chubb Commercial Insurance in the USA last year, found that small companies were even more likely to suffer from losses of intellectual property in foreign markets than the larger corporations. So what can be done about this? How do you protect yourself? Sarah Birkbeck, a partner specialising in IP and IT litigation at the Gatwick office of law firm DMH Stallard, has these suggestions for Sussex Enterprise member companies:

  • Intellectual property (IP) is often the most valuable asset in a business and the protection of it needs to feature in the business’s strategy.
  • It is important at the start of any commercial relationship to make the other party aware of how seriously you take the protection of your IP.
  • Do this by insisting that they sign your confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement right at the outset – if they won’t do business on that basis be prepared to walk away.
  • Don’t just assume that registration costs will be prohibitive; there are options that can make it more attractive including community-wide protection of rights and multiple applications.
  • If you do think your rights have been infringed take advice early, quite often just getting the other party to “cease and desist” can be a good first step and needn’t cost a fortune.

An important element of any action you take will be to show you have suffered or will suffer some economic loss. For that reason it’s important to ensure your overseas markets are all actively managed. Budgets and forecasts, as well as actual revenues, are an essential part of quantifying that. The formal agreements with agents and distributors are also important in demonstrating your presence in the market. Don’t forget that these agreements should also define what happens to your intellectual property when they terminate.

More information can be found from the following websites

www.ipo.gov.uk/otherprotect-abroad.htm

www.businesslink.gov.uk/ideas