What is intellectual property and could I consider it for my own business?

What is intellectual property (IP) and what are IP rights? 

IP refers to creations of the mind and includes inventive products or processes, designs, distinctive signs, and creative works. IP may be generated while fulfilling service contracts, as a result of investments in research and development, and through activities aimed at differentiating a services and its provider. 

These IP rights are generally private rights granted by governments to individuals, businesses, or associations to exclude others from using a protected work without the owner’s permission for a limited period of time, subject to exceptions, limitations, and exclusions. These rights are granted and enforced at the domestic level and valid only in the jurisdiction in which they have been registered or otherwise acquired. 

See the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Guide to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) Agreement for an introduction to that trade treaty. Other useful resources include the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which has information about several other international treaties on IP protections and ongoing negotiations. 

The International Trade Centre’s (ITC) guidebook on Secrets of Intellectual Property, A guide for small and medium-sized exporters is another useful resource.    

What are the different types of IP rights? 

IP assets can be grouped into two main categories:

  1. Copyright and related rights: Copyright refers to the rights of authors in their literary and artistic works, including books, music, films, computer programs, and advertisements. Related rights include the rights of performers over their performances, producers over their “fixations” (recording of performances, and broadcasting organizations over their broadcasts. Copyright and related rights seek to encourage and reward creative work. See WIPO’s Understanding Copyright and Related Rights for more information.
  2. Industrial property: Industrial property, described in more detail in WIPO’s Understanding Industrial Property, can be sub-divided into two fields: 
    • Distinctive signs and geographical indications, which inform consumers, prevent consumer deception, and help ensure fair competition among producers.
      • Trademarks: any sign or combination of signs, including words, letters, numerals, figurative elements, and colour combinations, capable of distinguishing the goods and services of one undertaking from another, may be protected as a trademark.
      • Geographical indications (GIs): a a sign that identifies a good, and in some jurisdictions a service, as originating in a place where a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic is essentially attributable to its origin (e.g., “Porto Digital” for digital services originating from Brazil’s Porto Digital technology park).
    • Patents, industrial designs, and trade secrets, among other types of IP, which aim to stimulate innovation and enable the transfer and dissemination of technology and associated know-how.
      • Patents: patents protect inventions, or new solutions to a technical problem, in the form of a product or process. Service providers may use or create technologies or processes that are patentable in some jurisdictions (e.g., manufacturing processes, medical procedures or computer programs meeting certain requirements).
      • Industrial designs: new and independently created ornamental or non-functional aspects of an article, such as its shape, patterns, lines or colours, may be protected as an industrial design (e.g., architectural designs, textile designs, and graphical user interfaces). Businesses create or hire service providers to develop industrial designs to customize products, develop new market segments and strengthen brands.
      • Trade secrets: information that is secret, has commercial value because it is secret, and has been subject to reasonable steps to keep it secret may be legally protected as a trade secret. Also known as “undisclosed information,” recipes, algorithms, customer and supplier lists, new product launch details, unpublished research, and advertising strategies may constitute trade secrets.

Why does IP matter for my business to trade? 

Domestic IP laws and regulations have implications for product development, design, and delivery; marketing; exporting; licensing and franchising; and pricing. They can also influence your business’ ability to raise financial resources and attract foreign investors and partners. 

Identifying the various types of IP that your business develops, which IP rights to protect and enforce, and in which jurisdictions, are important steps when considering foreign markets. Researching which IP rights are already protected for other businesses in your field of activity in a target market is equally critical to avoid infringement. As IP rights are protected and enforced at the domestic level, exporting services often entails navigating through IP laws and procedures applicable in each target market to assess whether export licenses are needed, and which trademarks are appropriate for the markets considered. 

As engaging in trade expands the marketplace for your business, understanding and protecting your IP rights in relation to your competitors enables you to seize market value, hold transparent negotiations with business partners, and avoid costs from IP infringement (See guide on ways to resolve an IP dispute). For more information on why IP rights matter for exporters, see this WIPO training of trainers presentation. 

Where can I learn more? 

  • Both your own and your target market’s domestic and/or regional IP office may offer useful resources and services. See WIPO’s Directory of Intellectual Property Offices.
  • The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) also offers several useful tools including:
    • A free, online diagnostic tool that can help you to assess your business’ IP. The IP diagnostic contains several sections with questions on the types of IP that your business may have. At the end, this diagnostic provides a report with suggestions on how you can enhance the competitiveness of your business.
    • The Inventor Assistance Program (IAP), which supports inventors in developing countries in filing patent applications. The program matches developing country inventors and small businesses with limited financial means with pro bono patent attorneys.