Intellectual property 101: basics for business

‘I’ll think about that once I’ve got things up and running.’

It’s a common phrase we hear in relation to intellectual property (IP), but the reality is your business holds incredible potential from the very beginning. Protecting this early can be critical.

Often a business’s most important assets are IP and branding. This includes trade marks, patents, copyright, registered designs and plant breeder’s rights. Each type of IP protects a business in a different way. Let’s take a look at the more common types of IP.

Trade marks: what’s in a name?

The difference between a registered business name, registered company name, domain name and a trade mark is often misunderstood.

Registering a business, company or domain name does not give you any exclusive rights for your goods and services. Only a trade mark can give you that kind of protection.

Here’s a quick overview:

A registered business name (also known as a trading name) is the name under which your business operates and is connected to your Australian Business Number (ABN). Your registered business name is managed by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).

A registered company name, commonly identified with a Proprietary Limited (Pty Ltd), is the name you used when registering a company as opposed to a business. Registered company names are also managed by ASIC, which has useful information on the difference between registered business names and registered company names.

A domain name is your address on the internet. It’s the way people find your business online. Domain names are registered on a first come first served basis. However there are rules and policies for registering domain names. If a domain name is using a trade marked name, the owner of the trade mark can take certain actions to recover the domain name.

A trade mark gives their owner exclusive legal rights to use the trade mark throughout Australia. Unlike a business, company or domain name, a registered trade mark lets you take action against other businesses using names that are the same or misleadingly similar to your trade mark.

To find out more about registering your business, company or domain names, visit business.gov.au or talk to a business advisor. To learn more about the importance of trade marks, visit the trade mark section of our website. 

Trade marks: more than just a name

While names are important, trade marks can be so much more. Your trade mark is your brand. It’s the identity of your business, distinguishing your goods and services from others. It might be your corporate logo, a jingle you use in an advertisement, your business’s name painted on the side of your truck or your signage or packaging.

In order to protect your brand, you should register your trade mark with us.

Patents: protecting your invention

A patent is an exclusive right to commercialise or licence your invention for up to 20 years. Patent protection can be granted for a device, substance, method or process that is new, inventive and useful.

New means no one else has invented it or knows about it. You must keep it a secret before you apply. If you’ve already gone public with your invention you may not get a patent.

Inventive means skilled people in your industry would not find your invention an obvious thing to do.

Useful means it has a useful function and actually works.

We examine patent applications from Australian and international applicants who want to protect their invention in Australia.

Designs: you’ve got the look

While a patent protects how something works, a registered design protects how it looks. This can be the shape, pattern, configuration or ornamentation that gives your product a new and distinct appearance.

Owning a registered design right gives you exclusive ability to commercially use, licence or sell it for up to 10 years. Like patents, registered designs must be kept secret before you apply for protection.

Plant breeder’s rights: growing your business

Plant breeder’s rights (PBR) give you exclusive rights to commercially use and sell your new plant variety. A registered PBR is used to protect a new variety of plant that is distinct, uniform and stable. Meeting these criteria can take some time due to the growing tests which may be involved. PBR protection applies for 20 years for most plant species and 25 years for grapevines (Vitis vinifera) and trees.

Other types of IP

Copyright

Copyright protects works such as written material, artistic works, cinematography, music and other works of authorship. In Australia, it is an automatic right that lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator therefore you don’t need to register with any government agency. The Australian Copyright Council also has many detailed fact sheets about copyright issues. The Government body responsible for administration of copyright is the Department of Communications and the Arts.

Trade secrets

A trade secret is information used by a company to create its products or deliver its services, with this information being known only to the company. This can be useful when a product is difficult to reverse engineer. An example is the secret recipe for Coca Cola.

Geographical indications

A geographical indication (GI) identifies a product as originating from a specific territory, region or locality where a particular quality, reputation or other characteristic is essentially attributable to its geographical origin. Australia has a dual system for protecting GIs; certification trade marks can be used to protect GIs for all goods, while GIs for wine can be protected on a standalone wine register.

Circuit layouts

Circuit layouts are the layout designs or plans of integrated circuits used in computer-generated equipment. They’re sometimes referred to as computer chip or semi-conductor chip designs. Circuit layout rights automatically protect original layout designs for integrated circuits and computer chips. While these rights are based on copyright law principles, they are a separate and unique form of protection. We do not handle the rights associated with circuit layouts. As with copyright, this is the responsibility of the Department of Communications and the Arts.

Leverage your IP to generate revenue

Once IP rights are secured, a business can begin planning how to translate these assets into profits. Collaboration between an IP source and a research and development (R&D) organisation (such as a medical institute or publicly funded university) is an example of how to commercialise IP. Licensing or franchising IP are also common commercially-driven agreements between businesses.

More information

Published: 
21 April 2017