Protecting inventions, product ideas, and knowhow
Your company should protect its products and knowhow from attempts at imitation. You can apply for intellectual property rights, using a trademark, patent or design protection. You can also use contractual protection methods; for example, a non-compete clause or a confidentiality clause. You can also employ informal methods, such as placing restrictions on the use of information.
You can protect your invention with a patent or a utility model that is looser in terms of its criteria. In this way others cannot exploit it financially by copying or imitating it. Protect your invention as early on as possible. This is a way to ensure that nobody else has time to protect the same invention before you.
You can obtain a patent for your invention if it is new and resolves a technical problem. The invention must be essentially different from previous solutions. It should not be self-evident for professionals in the field. The invention should be a concrete solution: a device, product or method - not merely an idea.
You can also protect your invention by protecting the design of its appearance, and its name or other means of identifying it with a trademark.
If the expected lifecycle on the market of your invention is very short, having it officially protected may not necessarily be worth the money. In such a case you can protect it by keeping it secret for as long as possible. Examples of such short-lived inventions are many types of toy and fads.
Protecting a service may be more challenging than protecting a material product. The service will generally need several layers of protection that complement one another.
You can use a trademark to protect the service’s name, logo, slogan or other means of identifying it. It will also help to build the brand. If your service has its own trademark, your customers will identify it and they will be able to associate the positive aspects of your service with the trademark. A trademark can also allow you to expand your business, for example by licensing your service, i.e. by allowing other companies to use your trademark against payment.
Informal protection methods are mainly preferred in the protection of a service. These include bans on the release and publication of information, information system access rights, staff commitment and making it difficult to imitate the service. It will also help if your company leads the way in the production of the service. In the role of such a ‘pioneer’, you can establish a strong brand, and customers might prefer your service to those that enter the market later.
You can also use contractual protection methods, such as confidentiality and non-compete clauses, to protect the service.
No one can own an idea or concept, so it cannot be protected in itself either. Turn your idea into a real solution, tool, method, object, format, shape, product name or similarly documented end result. Doing this will mean your company has an intellectual property for which you can apply for an exclusive right in the form, say, of a patent, design protection or registered trademark.
The best way to ensure that an idea remains your exclusive right is to keep your competitors unaware of it. Only discuss your idea for a product with people you can trust. If necessary, confidentiality can be guaranteed by means of written agreements.
Remember, however, that it is generally not good practice either to incubate an idea for a product alone and keep it secret from everyone. You should always discuss your idea for a product with at least one reliable party that is familiar with the concept. In this way you may see your idea in a different light and be able more easily to determine its usefulness and application.
Your company’s knowhow extends to the professional skills of your employees and stakeholder relations. Knowhow also includes your company’s practices, such as its processes, information systems and distribution channels.
You can protect your knowhow with intellectual property rights, which cover industrial property and copyright.
You can also use contractual protection methods; for example, non-compete and confidentiality clauses and nonsolicitation agreements. In this way you can oblige your employees and partners to act in such a way that does not threaten your company’s knowhow.
You can also use informal protection methods:
- confidentiality prevents the disclosure of confidential information to outsiders.
- restrictions on the use of information mean your employees and outsiders have limited access to data.
- staff commitment prevents the disappearance of information your employees are responsible for.
- job rotation makes your company less dependent on individual employees.
- documentation makes your company more efficient and prevents the disappearance of information your employees are responsible for.
- technical protection makes it harder to copy information.
You can use industrial property rights to protect your company from people copying the results of product development.
If you want to protect a product as a concrete, technical solution, you can apply for a patent for it or a utility model that is looser in terms of its criteria. In such a case, you will have the right to prohibit others from manufacturing, selling or using an invention that relies on your patent or utility model professionally.
If you want to protect a word, symbol or combination of letters, you can apply for a registered trademark for it. In this case your company will have an exclusive right to use the mark to identify its product.
If you want to protect the appearance of a good or a part of one, you can apply for a design right for it. The protected item could, for example, be the design of an object, a cloth pattern or the handle of a coffee cup. The holder of a design right has an exclusive right to use the design.
Industrial property rights are county-specific and vary in terms of costs. Draw up a strategy based on careful calculations as to what products your company should protect and how.
If creativity results in a work, the author or person responsible for it can be granted copyright for it. The work is always independent and distinctive, the result of the creative input of the author, etc. It may, for example, be something in the area of the applied arts, a work of architecture, a photograph, a film or arts and crafts.
Copyright does not need to be applied for separately or registered or notified. It is automatically granted to the creator of the work. In Finland, copyright remains in force throughout the life of the creator and for 70 years after their death. A copyright holder is normally a person, and not a company.
If the item is a computer program or database that your company’s employee has developed as part of their job, the copyright is granted directly to you, the employer, under the Finnish Copyright Act.
Copyright holders are in control of their works and the production and distribution of their copies. The work may not be modified or adapted without the creator’s permission. The creator’s name must be mentioned when the work is published. Copyright holders may also, if they so wish, licence their works.
Even if your company has protected its intellectual property properly, with, say, a patent or trademark, someone could nevertheless violate your rights. If you suspect this to be the case, before you take any action, try to find out if your suspicions are justified. You could use a patent agent or legal expert, for example, to help you find out.
If your rights have definitely been violated, first get in touch directly with the party responsible. Act businesslike and try to agree on a simple solution. If the infringement was unintentional and small-scale, it can often be put right.
If you cannot agree on the matter together, you can bring an infringement action in the Market Court and claim damages.
If the infringement relates to copyright, you can first contact the Copyright Council, which reports to the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, and request an opinion on the case free of charge. Note, however, that Council opinions are only recommendations. The time for processing opinions is generally six to twelve months.
The Finnish Patent and Registration Office will help your company in all matters related to patents, utility models, trademarks and design protection. It also regularly runs courses and seminars on intellectual property protection.
You can also consult VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and your district business development company if you have questions about protecting your company’s intellectual property. You can also acquire consultation services from patent agents in private patent offices and from innovation experts at ELY Centres. If your company has connections with a university, you could also ask innovation agents for help there.
If your question is about copyright, you can, for example, ask the Copyright Council, which reports to the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, or the Finnish Copyright Information and Anti-Piracy Centre.