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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 by investments in research and development and activities aimed at differentiating products by improving product quality, reducing production costs, and/or delivering greater value to customers. 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. 

IP 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 TRIPS Agreement for an introduction to this crucial multilateral treaty on IP, which is otherwise known as the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. You can also visit the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) website and the International Trade Centre (ITC) and WIPO’s guidebook on Secrets of Intellectual Property: A guide for small and medium-sized exporters for more information.  WIPO’s IP Diagnostics is also a good place for your business to start to learn more about your own IP.

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” (recordings) 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, discussed in greater detail in WIPO’s Understanding Industrial Property, can be subdivided into two fields.

The first of these fields involves:

  • Distinctive signs and geographical indications, which inform consumers, prevent consumer deception, and help to ensure fair competition among producers.

And within that category, there are a series of sub-categories:

  • Trademarks: These are 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. These signs and sign combinations are protected as trademarks.
  • Geographical indications (GIs): A GI is 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. Most geographical indications are associated with agricultural products (e.g., “Champagne” for a white sparkling wine from a region in France, “Tequila” for a spirit drink from a certain region of Mexico, or “darjeeling” for a tea from a certain region of India).

The second of these fields involves:

  • Patents, industrial designs, and trade secrets, and other types of industrial property, aim to stimulate innovation and enable the transfer and dissemination of technology and associated know-how.

And within that category, there are a series of sub-categories:

  • Patents: Patents protect inventions, along with new solutions to a technical problem in the form of a product or process. Various technologies found in smartphones, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and self-driving cars are patented in certain jurisdictions.
  • Industrial designs:  New and independently created ornamental or non-functional aspects of an article, such as its shape, patterns, lines, or colors, may be protected as an industrial design. Businesses create industrial designs to customize products, develop new market segments, and strengthen brands. Household products, textiles, toys, and cars often incorporate industrial designs.
  • 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,” manufacturing processes, algorithms, customer lists, and formulas for producing products may constitute trade secrets.

Why does IP matter for my business to trade? 

Domestic IP laws and regulations have implications for the following:

  • product development, design, and delivery; 
  • marketing, exporting, licensing, and franchising; 
  • pricing; and 
  • businesses’ 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 goods and services often entails navigating through IP laws and procedures that apply 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? 

The domestic and/or regional IP office for either your area or that of your target market may offer useful resources and services. See WIPO’s Directory of Intellectual Property Offices.

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) offers a number of useful tools including:

  • WIPO IP Diagnostics: This free, online diagnostic tool can help you assess your business’ IP. The 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. Access the WIPO IP Diagnostics
  • The Inventor Assistance Program (IAP): This program supports inventors in developing countries in filing patent applications by matching developing country inventors and small businesses with limited financial means with pro bono patent attorneys. Learn more about the Investor Assistance Program.