What Steps Should UK Startups Take to Protect Intellectual Property Internationally?

April 18, 2024

Imagine you’ve created a truly innovative product, an idea that could revolutionise your industry, or perhaps a design so unique it leaves everyone in awe. As a startup, these creations, your intellectual property (IP), are the lifeblood of your business. They differentiate you from the competition and provide the foundation for your company’s growth. It is crucial to protect these assets, not only within the UK but also internationally. The question is, what steps should you take to ensure this protection?

Understanding Intellectual Property

Intellectual property refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, designs, and symbols, names and images used in business. In the world of startups and businesses, IP is often the most valuable asset.

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Intellectual property rights (IPRs) are the protections granted to the creators or owners of IP. These rights include patents, copyright and trademarks. Understanding these rights is the first step toward protecting your property.


A patent is a legal protection given to a new invention or a significant improvement on a previous one. It gives the holder exclusive rights to the invention, preventing others from using, making, or selling it without permission. Patents can protect your product, helping keep your innovative edge.

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Copyrights protect original works of authorship, including software, music, and books. In the context of a startup, copyright could protect your website content, marketing materials, and software code.


Trademarks protect symbols, names, and slogans used to identify goods or services. A strong trademark will help your customers distinguish your products or services from those of competitors.

Registering Intellectual Property

To benefit from these protections, you must register your intellectual property. In the UK, you can register your IP with the Intellectual Property Office (IPO). However, registering in the UK will only protect your property within the country. For international protection, you need to register in each country where you intend to do business.

European Union

For startups looking to trade within the European Union, your first step should be to register your IP with the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO). This ensures protection across all EU member states.

United States

If you are considering doing business in the United States, you will need to register your IP with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the Copyright Office.

Other Countries

In other countries, you will need to register your IP with the respective national offices. Alternatively, for patents and trademarks, you can use the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) international registration systems.

Enforcing Intellectual Property Rights

Registering your IP is only the start. You must also be prepared to enforce your rights. Infringements can occur anywhere, and legal systems vary from country to country. Therefore, it is essential to have a plan for enforcement.

Monitor Usage

Regularly monitor the marketplace for potential infringements. This means keeping an eye on your competitors and any new products or services that enter your market.

Legal Action

If you identify an infringement, consult with a legal professional. They can guide you on the appropriate steps, which could involve sending a cease and desist letter, negotiating a licensing agreement, or even initiating a lawsuit.

Utilising IP Agreements

Lastly, entrepreneurs should be aware of the importance of IP agreements. These contracts can help manage IP rights among co-founders, employees, contractors, and any third parties.

Non-Disclosure Agreements

Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) can protect your sensitive information during discussions with potential business partners, investors, or employees.

Assignment of Rights

Ensure that any IP created by your employees or contractors is rightfully owned by your company. This can be achieved through employment contracts or separate assignment agreements.

Licensing Agreements

Licensing agreements allow others to use your IP in exchange for royalties. These agreements can be a valuable revenue source and can help expand your business into new markets.

Intellectual property is a valuable asset for any startup. Protecting it internationally requires understanding IP rights, registering IP, enforcing these rights, and utilising IP agreements. By taking these steps, UK startups can ensure their innovations are safeguarded, giving them the confidence to grow and thrive on the global stage.

Strengthening Your Strategy with Trade Secrets

Trade secrets comprise another key aspect of IP protection. They are a form of intellectual property that encompasses confidential business information which gives an enterprise a competitive advantage. Examples of trade secrets range from manufacturing processes, customer lists, market research data, to unique business methodologies.

Unlike patents or trademarks, trade secrets are not disclosed to the public and do not require registration. They are protected by law as long as they remain confidential. The most common way to protect trade secrets is through non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with employees, contractors, and business partners.

However, trade secrets can be challenging to protect. If a competitor independently creates or reverse engineers the same information, they are typically free to use it. Therefore, it’s critical to assess whether your business idea or product innovation would be better protected as a trade secret or patent. Seek legal advice to ensure you make the right decision.

In this digital age, data protection also plays a significant role in safeguarding trade secrets. Implement robust security measures to prevent cyber theft or accidental data leaks. Regularly review and update these measures to keep pace with technological advancements and emerging threats.

Incorporating Design Rights

Design rights pertain to the visual appearance of a product, including shape, configuration, pattern, or ornamentation. They can protect both three-dimensional designs and two-dimensional graphics or textiles.

In the UK, unregistered design rights automatically protect your design for up to 15 years from the end of the calendar year in which the design was created. However, unregistered rights can be more challenging to enforce, as you must prove you own the design and that it has been copied.

Registered design rights, on the other hand, provide stronger protection. They protect your design for up to 25 years, allowing you to take legal action against anyone who uses your design without your permission. Like trademarks and patents, design rights need to be registered in each country of operation for international protection.

For global coverage, you can opt for an International Design registration through the Hague System by the World Intellectual Property Office. This system allows you to register a design in multiple countries with a single application.


Intellectual property is the heart and soul of a startup. It differentiates your unique products and services from competitors and provides a strong foundation for your business to grow and compete on an international scale.

Navigating the realm of international IP protection can be complex. It involves a multifaceted approach encompassing understanding different types of intellectual property rights, registering these rights in relevant jurisdictions, enforcing these rights, and utilising effective strategies such as NDAs, assignment of rights, and licensing agreements.

Moreover, protecting trade secrets and acknowledging the significance of design rights are critical components of a comprehensive IP protection strategy.

By taking these steps, and with the support of legal professionals, UK startups can safeguard their innovative edge. This not only ensures their survival but also their potential to thrive, letting them confidently stride onto the global stage, ready to transform their respective industries. After all, in the world of business, a great idea is only as good as its protection.

Indeed, the journey to protect intellectual property internationally can be intricate and challenging. However, it’s a necessary and worthwhile endeavour that ultimately secures the startup’s potential for success, innovation, and a dynamic global presence. Remember, in the realm of entrepreneurship, your intellectual property is not just your asset – it’s your superpower.