Tips for startups: understanding intellectual property

8 min read
Leighton Burley

It’s exciting to come up with a new invention or solution to a problem, especially if it's a problem that you have been working on for some time. Often, these problems will keep you awake at night, and you'll spend your days trying to figure out the answer. These ideas and inventions are what's called intellectual property.

Intellectual property is something that you have produced as a result of mental effort and activity.

As a business, you must understand what intellectual property (IP) is and how you can use Canada’s IP laws to protect your ideas or creations. The last thing that you want is for someone to steal what’s yours because you didn't understand how to protect your ideas.

In this article, we are going to be taking a look at what intellectual property is and how you can protect the fruits of your labour from getting stolen or used without your permission.

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property is a term that is used to refer to the creations of the mind, such as:

  • Product inventions
  • Artistic, musical or literary work
  • Designs, symbols or images
  • Names that are used for branding

IP might also include things such as:

  • Inventions of new processes
  • The visual design of a product
  • Branding such as names, logos or images
  • Words, sounds and designs used in a company’s goods and services
Intellectual Property Kraft Dinner Boxes

When you think about it, we have intellectual property around us all the time. The products, inventions and tools that we use on a daily basis — e.g. the Google algorithm, Kraft Dinners, the NBC chimes — were once just labelled as intellectual property.

A quick guide to intellectual property rights

If you're an entrepreneur with an invention or idea that's truly unique, then you'll want to be sure to nail down the legal rights to it.

Smart inventors keep mum about their ideas until their rights are established.

Let’s look at each of the four options in more detail.

One of the ways that you can protect your intellectual property rights is through copyright. A copyright means that you have "the right to copy" a particular idea or creation.

Copyright will help protect a wide range of original works but is usually used to protect works such as music, art, literature and drama.

Copyright gives the original creator the exclusive rights to produce, reproduce, perform and publish their creation in part or in full.

In Canada, the original works are automatically protected by copyright laws, and you don't need to register for a copyright. However, it will be much easier to prove that you're the creator of an original work if you actually own the copyright.

The term for copyrights within Canada lasts for the lifespan of the original creator plus 50 years. This means that you'll never have to worry about someone stealing your intellectual property for as long as you live — if you've officially copyrighted it.

For more information about Canadian copyrights, you may want to read this Guide to Canadian Copyrights from the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO).

2. Patents

Intellectual Property Person Working in Lab
Photo: CDC on Unsplash

If your intellectual property is an invention such as a product or process, then you'll want to file for a patent, so that you can receive the intellectual property rights to your invention.

A patent applies to any new and useful invention. It can also apply to improvements that you have made to an existing product or process.

Once you've patented your invention, you'll have the exclusive rights to create, use and sell your invention within Canada for 20 years from the date that you file your patent application.

Does your product or process qualify?

For your invention to get patented, it'll have to meet three criteria. It must be:

In essence, your creation must be the first of its kind and can't exist anywhere else in the world.

It must also be functional and must be useful for some purpose.

The product or process should be ingenious; it shouldn't be an idea that just anyone could think up.

Make sure your invention meets all three of these requirements before you apply for a patent.

3. Trademarks

If you're an entrepreneur who wants to protect a brand or turn your brand name into a corporation, then you'll want to register for a trademark. A trademark is a mark or logo that is associated with your brand name, your products and your services.

A trademark protects everything that sets your business apart from others. Trademarked features could include:

  • Brand name
  • Logo
  • Slogan
  • Scents
  • Tastes
  • Sounds

These are representations of some of the intellectual property that your brand may own, and something that you should protect through a trademark.

The more distinct your branding is from another company, the better protected your brand will be.

In Canada, trademarks last for 10 years at a time, and you'll be given an option to renew your trademark after the10 years have expired. If you'd like to learn more about trademarks, then you'll want to look at The Introduction to Canadian Trademarks from CIPO.

4. Industrial design

The design of a product can make all the difference in a competitive market, and it can be the selling feature that convinces the customer to buy your product. It's no wonder that manufacturers spend a lot of time and money on the design of their products.

Industrial design is thought to be very valuable, especially if it's a good design and is considered to be intellectual property. You can protect your intellectual property rights to your product designs by registering your industrial design.

An industrial design registration will protect the visual design of your product — the shape, patterns and other features that make it distinguishable from a competitor's product.

By registering your design, you'll gain the legal rights that prevent other people from using your designs for 15 years. In Canada, there is no time limit for when you need to register your design unless your product's design has been disclosed to the public, in which case you'll have 12 months to register your industrial design.

If you would like to learn more about registering your Industrial Designs within Canada, you'll want to check out this Industrial Design Guide by CIPO.

One exception: trade secrets

A form of intellectual property that cannot be protected by intellectual property laws is something that's called a trade secret. There's often confusion surrounding trade secrets because many people believe that they'll be able to sue their competitors for stealing their trade secrets.

Intellectual Property Person Holding a Smartphone

A trade secret refers to items such as:

  • Formulas
  • Recipes
  • Designs
  • Instruments
  • Practices

However, the problem with trade secrets is that they aren't capable of being protected under law. So to keep your trade secrets safe, you'll need to keep it a secret so that nobody finds out what you know.

Often, a business will make their employees sign a confidentiality agreement when they're working on developing products.

Sometimes, an idea or invention will be considered a "trade secret" during the innovation stages of developing the product. This is because the product isn't developed enough to get patented, but it's still technologically advanced and needs to be kept a secret until the project is completed.

The benefits of staking your claim

Once you have the exclusive rights to your idea or creation, you'll have an asset that can benefit you and your business. Armed with a trademark or patent, you could:

  • Profit from selling the rights to your IP
  • Stop your trade secrets from being publicized
  • Prevent others from making, using or selling your invention
  • Protect your brand as it grows
  • Make your business more attractive to investors

Benefits like these are everyday to the Nikes and Coca Colas of the world. But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy the same rewards.

Protect what’s yours

We hope that this article has helped you gain an understanding of what intellectual property is and how you can protect your ideas and inventions. If you are an entrepreneur or small business that works with innovation or developing ideas, then you'll want to make sure that you always hold the intellectual property rights to your inventions.

It's also a good idea to make your employees sign a confidentiality agreement so that they can't disclose any information about the products that you are developing. This will help your ideas remain a secret until you have them protected by law.

This post should not be taken as legal advice. Always consult a legal professional before undertaking an Intellectual Property application of any kind or drafting a confidentiality agreement for employees and suppliers.