Intellectual Property for Small Business – 5 Things You Need to Know

How will I protect my business’s intellectual assets?


Many small businesses start out with what they may consider to be something completely unique, whether it’s a brand, new product design, innovative business name or written works, but they wonder how they will protect these items.

This is where Intellectual Property (IP) comes in. IP rights are designed to provide protection for IP owners’ creations.

Here are 5 things you need to know about when it comes to IP for your small business.

1. What’s intellectual property?

IP covers a wide range of intangible property or proprietary knowledge. It may include inventions, trade marks, designs, brands or even the application of your idea.

It’s important to understand IP rights and laws in your state, territory and country. In Australia, IP is mostly governed by IP Australia and the following generally applies.

Specifically IP can include:

  • copyright
  • patents
  • trademarks
  • registered design
  • plant breeder’s rights
  • circuit layout rights
  • moral rights
  • confidential information (including trade secrets).

However creating IP does not make you the owner or provide protection. IP ownership can be agreed upon through appropriate contractual arrangements, especially with employees, suppliers, distributors and manufacturers.

2. What’s not intellectual property?

Generally speaking, company names, business names and domain names are not automatically considered IP.

While these names may be required to register your business and to operate and should be unique and form part of your brand, they are not your IP, at least not automatically.

You may need to make a formal application for some forms of IP, while other types don’t require application.

3. How do I protect my intellectual property?

This depends on the type of IP. When it comes to copyright of expression of ideas through mediums such as writing, music, images the creator receives automatic copyright protection (you should check your local laws for specifics on this).

Patents provide protection for an invention with commercialisation prospects and unique designs can be registered. Both require an application process.

However you should be careful when talking about your idea and keeping it out of the public domain until your patent or registered idea is secured.

Trade marks are used to distinguish the goods or services from one organisation to another.

A registered trade mark can protect words, symbols, letters, numbers, names, signatures, phrases, sounds, smells, shapes and aspects of packaging, or a combination of these items.

Registration of a trade mark is not essential but registration can provide clearer protection against other people using deceptively similar identities.

Some business owners choose to lay claim to their unique identity by placing a ™ near their organisation name or logo. This is an unregistered trade mark and does not require an application process in Australia. Using this symbol can in some cases provide protection under common law rights.

However registering a trade mark through an application and review process, enables successful applicants to use the ® symbol and provides further legal certainty.

For other IP types you should start with the relevant authority in your state, territory and country such as IP Australia.

4. Do I require international IP protection?

If you are planning on exporting goods or services and entering international markets, you should consider applying for IP protection in each country you’re planning on doing business in.

5. What do I do when IP goes wrong?

Enforcing or defending against infringement of IP rights can be costly. You should take proactive steps to avoid infringement.

You should conduct thorough searches before developing a new logo or product and keep up-to-date records of your own IP.

Before using other people’s material you should obtain permission from them first.

If you are accused of infringing on another’s IP or you believe someone has infringed on your IP you should always consult a professional such as an IP lawyer.

It’s always best to plan your IP strategy in the early days when starting-up to avoid potential headaches in the future.

Don’t forget to check out our 5 Steps to Starting a Business.