How to: Protect your green inventions

The process of protecting green intellectual property can be as murky as it is resource intensive. Eleanor Maciver, partner and patent attorney at IP law firm Mewburn Ellis, explains how you can bolster your innovation’s green credentials.

Consumer demand, international agreements, and local policies are driving the shift towards a sustainable future. Businesses, regardless of their nature, are seeking ways to improve sustainability and capitalise on these efforts.

Development of new technology is playing a significant role in addressing the impact we have on the planet. Small and start-up companies are at the forefront of sustainable innovation. This article looks at the role that Intellectual Property (IP) can play in commercial success of sustainable innovation, particularly for small businesses or startups.

What is IP?

IP comes in a variety of different forms, each designed to protect a different type of idea, and exist on a country-by-country basis. The most relevant to technology-based businesses are generally:

Patents – which protect how something works

A patent is a time limited (up to 20 years in most countries) ‘monopoly’ right which means the owner can effectively stop anyone else using the invention. Patents require registration which can take several years.

Designs – which protect how something looks

Design rights come in two main types in the UK and EU – “registered” designs and “unregistered” designs. Registered designs are monopoly rights for up to 25 years in the UK and EU, while unregistered designs provide shorter-term protection against direct copying.

Trade marks – which indicate the origin of the something

A trade mark is something (e.g. a word or sign) which enables customers to identify goods or services as coming from a particular source. There is no time limit on how long a trade mark can exist. Trade marks can be particularly powerful in building trust and using that reputation for many years.

Copyright – which protects creative works

This well-known form of IP protects creative works such as artistic creations but also business logos, promotional materials, software, and databases. There is no official registration system for copyright in the UK and most other parts of the world. The length of copyright protection depends on the type of work.

IP for Sustainable Businesses

IP can be used to prevent competitors using or copying innovative ideas, allowing businesses to monopolise them and charge a premium. IP can also generate additional value such as through licensing and is particularly useful in negotiations (as UK readers will know from Dragons’ Den!).

For technology-based businesses, patents can play a key role in commercial success. Many small businesses and particularly startups need investors. Investors want as much reassurance as possible that they will see a return for their money. Patents help provide this reassurance by providing exclusivity for the technology.

However, considering the entire spectrum of IP is crucial when developing an IP strategy. For example, for consumer facing goods, designs and trade marks can be a key factor in commercial success.

Another key concern for companies looking to promote their sustainability is consumer trust and greenwashing. IP can play a role here too.

Patents alone cannot verify the green credentials of a product, but they do provide detailed information about how the technology works for consumers and others to consider. Patents can allow a company to promote themselves as the only provider of a particular technology.

In the last 5 to 10 years, there has been an interesting rise in the use of trade marks to support green credentials and promote trust in sustainability claims. This is happening in a number of ways.

For example, where one company has a proven track record on sustainability this can be “lent” to another company by allowing them to use the brand. Loop Industries and Terracycle are both recycling companies whose trade mark (logo) appears on the products of many other companies. Their logos effectively indicate to the consumer that the packaging in this product is recyclable or recycled.

Another example is the appearance of third party ‘sustainability assessment’ based brands. Companies like B-Corp assess companies on strict sustainability and ethical requirements which if met allow the company to use the B-Corp logo. These (often smaller) companies can then rely on the B-Corp brand to support their sustainability credentials.

IP Strategy

IP plays multiple roles in the commercial success of a business but how do you know what IP you have and more importantly how do you focus your efforts on the right IP? That’s where your IP strategy comes in.

If the business purpose of IP is not considered, becomes lost or the business plan changes without considering the effect on the IP, it is easy to ‘accidentally’ pursue low relevance IP which can be costly and time-consuming with limited reward. A well thought out IP strategy helps avoid this all too frequent pitfall.

An IP Audit is a good first step in producing an IP strategy and government help is available to help innovative businesses pay for one. A bit like a business plan, there is no one size fits all IP audit. An IP audit should look at the benefits of IP to the business and consider what IP should be pursued rather than simply what IP is available. If you look to conduct an audit, work closely with your attorney so they understand your business plans and aims!


IP is a business tool; when used effectively it will support, and can be a key factor in, commercial success. Like sustainability, IP is complicated and there are many factors to consider. Engaging an IP attorney can help navigate this complexity and build a robust IP strategy tailored to each business’s needs.

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