For the next few months, in-between the regular Fash Tech Lawyer news and gossip, I thought it might be useful for all of you budding designers out there hoping to turn your start-up fashion business into a fashion power house of the future, to list my top tips for protecting your intellectual property.
In this series of “Hey! Hands off my IP!” posts, I will give an insight into what IP rights are, how you can use them to protect your business and why you should!
IP – what’s all the fuss about?
Why do I think this is important? Well, being in the creative industry your most valuable assets can often be your intellectual property. What’s intellectual property I hear you cry?! A house of our own that us Londoners can only dream of? Nope! Intellectual property, or IP as it’s more fondly known, is a collection of intangible property rights that come about as a result of intellectual effort – so get those cogs turning! IP can be things like trade marks, copyright, design rights, confidential information, trade secrets and patents.
Fashion brands such as Chanel, Burberry and Louboutin all share something in common, their brands are king! So naturally they would want to protect them. One of the best ways to do this in the early stages, is to register a trade mark for your brand’s name and/or logo.
So what’s a trade mark? The terms “trade mark” and “brand” are often used interchangeably. Both can refer to a sign which distinguishes the goods, or services, of one trader from those of another. Trade marks are used to help customers identify goods or services as originating from you. A registered trade mark is infringed if it is used without its owner’s permission, so the owner of the mark has a monopoly over its use for the goods and/or services for which it is registered. This monopoly can be maintained forever!
Okay, so you’ve explained what a trade mark is. Why do I need one for my fashion business?
Once you have decided on a name for your brand, protect it! It’s very tempting for competitors to start using a similar brand name to yours to try and ride off your success, particularly as your brand grows and becomes more successful. I wrote about the retailer VoQuE attempting to use VOGUE’s name on my last post here. Take a look for a prime example!
If I want to protect my brand’s logo, what should my first step be?
You’ll first need to see if there are any identical or similar marks to the name you are thinking of using. Although it’s perfectly possible to carry out a simple online search to see what’s out there, this might not catch everything. The best thing to do is to instruct a lawyer or trade mark attorney to carry out and report on detailed searches for you, known as Clearance Searches.
What happens if I don’t carry out a search?
If you go ahead and use a name without first doing a clearance search, you can certainly run into problems. I’ve seen situations where businesses choose what they think is a unique name, only to be slapped with a nasty letter from someone who already owns that name! Or worse, they’ve been trading for a number of years, stacked up a tidy sum in assets, and the owner of the registered mark then sues them for infringement, and they lose everything.
What do I do next?
The next step would be applying! If you think here in the UK is your main market, but you hope to expand into other European countries and eventually the U.S.A. (for example), then think about applying for a Community Trade Mark (CTM) first and foremost. This will protect your brand in all 28 Member States and can be cheaper than registering your mark in multiple countries as and when you decide to trade there.
What if I start trading in different countries outside of the EU?
You will need to make separate applications for this and the hurdles for getting this through to registration in the U.S.A (for example) can be quite high! For instance, you will need to prove use or intent to use in the U.S.A. This can be quite difficult to do, but if you already have a national registration or a CTM, the hurdles can be a little easier to jump! What’s more, if you decide that within 6 months of your initial application, you are ready to take on a U.S.A. adventure, you will be granted what’s called a ‘priority period’ if claiming priority in your application. This means that when your U.S.A. application is approved and that mark registered, the U.S.A. mark will be deemed to have been registered from the date you initially applied for your CTM or national registration. Bonus!
What are classes?
Don’t worry, you don’t need to go back to school and take one – classes in the trade marks sense categorise goods and services for which the mark is registered. You will need to consider what goods and/or services, covered by these classes, you want to use your trade mark for. Typical classes for the fashion industry are class 25 for clothing footwear and headgear; and class 35 to advertise your goods for sale, but these are just a few. There are a number of classes available and a full list can be viewed here. Which classes you choose may largely depend on your brand, so always seek specialist advice from a lawyer or trade mark attorney before going ahead and selecting them.
How do I actually apply?
Most applications can be made online and there will be a fee to pay to the relevant IP office you are applying to. An examiner will then assess your application and if he or she is happy with it, will publish it for people to view and oppose (see warning above!). If you’ve had proper clearance searches carried out you shouldn’t have any oppositions and your trade mark will be entered on the relevant trade marks’ registry within a matter of months. Happy days!
What’s a watch service?
All of this is no good if once registered, someone starts infringing your mark and you don’t pick up on it! For a small fee, most lawyers and trade mark attorneys will offer a watch service, where, by the power of highly intelligent software, any marks that appear online or that are applied for in territories of interest to you that are slightly similar to your mark will be reported to you. Well worth doing!
The moral of the story
Carry out full and proper clearance searches on any name you plan to use, protect your brand early on by applying to register a trade mark, and always keep a watch out!
For more information on how to protect your IP, contact me!