Getting Started with Intellectual Property

Intellectual Property (or IP for short) covers a range of different legal tools you can use to protect your business. Because your business is unique with its own challenges and goals, it’s important to use the right form of IP for the job.

While there are a lot of tools in the IP shed, most businesses use a combination of four: patents, trade marks, designs, and copyright.


Patents protect inventions. After spending all your time and resources on R&D to bring your product to market, the last thing you want is to be copied.

Savvy inventors apply for patents to avoid this. A patent gives you the right to stop copiers from making or selling your invention. That way, you can recoup your investment and grow your business.

Patents are ideal when you have invested in R&D to develop a new invention and there is a real risk that competitors can copy it. So if you have invented a better drill, a faster aircraft, or stronger cryptography, you should definitely consider a patent.

How do I get a patent?

The process starts with a patent application. This has a detailed description of how your invention works. Patent examiners around the world will look at your patent application and decide if your invention is new and not obvious. After a few years, you can get a patent to enforce against the copiers.

Trade Marks

Brand loyalty and trust is why customers come back to your business over and over rather than going to a competitor. Building a strong trade mark—the brand which links your products to you—can be one of the most important assets of your business.

Counterfeiters and copycats know the power of a trade mark. So once you’ve spent all your time building your profile under a trade mark, competitors may start trying to trade off the back of it with cheap knockoffs. This can lead to public confusion and lost sales.

If your customers would choose your trade mark over another, then it is important to make sure that no one else can use that trade mark for their own products.

Registered trade marks are ideal for businesses who put value on their trade marks and want to protect these as much as possible. So if you value your trade mark, you should consider registering it.

How do I get a trade mark?

The process starts with a trade mark application. This sets out what your trade mark is (for example, a word or a logo) and how you intend to use it. Trade marks examiners around the world will look at your trade mark application and make sure it is distinctive and dissimilar to other trade marks. Eventually, you can end up with your own registered trade mark which you can proudly adorn with an ® symbol.

Our guide to The Trade Mark Application Process provides more detail about how the process works.


Registered designs protect the visual aspects of products. Product designers know how important aesthetics are. For a lot of customers, that’s the most important feature of a new purchase. While some enthusiasts will look at the ergonomics of a chair, the computational ability of a mobile phone, or the readability of a typeface, many just choose the one that looks the best.

Once you have a successful, well-designed product, you can be sure that others will try to copy it. Competitors with cheap knockoffs will confuse the public and can harm the good reputation you’ve built up.

A registered design gives you a tool to protect the distinctive look of your products. So if you consider that your products look better than the rest, you should consider registering the design.

How do I get a registered design?

The process starts with a design application which has a series of drawings of your product. Design examiners around the world will look at your design application and make sure it is new and distinctive. If your application passes the requirements, you will get your own registered design.


Copyright protects original creative works. This covers anything where there’s been some artistic input: from traditional art forms like paintings and novels through to software code and industrial design. Copyright therefore has some overlap with other forms of IP: an attractive product might be covered by both copyright and a registered design.

Copyright exists as soon as you create an original work. There’s no formalities or examination: it’s all automatic. Because of this, copyright is very easy to get.

But copyright comes with a catch. While you can rely on copyright to stop direct copies, it doesn’t stop someone from implementing their own version. Copyright therefore best fits in as a supplement to the other, stronger forms of IP.

Our guide to Copyright in New Zealand provides more detail about how to best utilise copyright in your business.

All the Rest

While most New Zealand businesses are protected with a combination of patents, trade marks, designs, and copyright, there are a lot of other categories of IP.

Plant variety rights cover new plant breeds (like new apple varieties), geographical indications cover the use of place names for distinctive products (like sparking wine from Champagne or cheese from Parmigiano-Reggiano), and trade secrets cover confidential information (like secret formulas or algorithms).

What about other people’s IP?

Just like IP can be used to protect your business from competitors, your competitors can use IP to attack you. It’s very frustrating to see great businesses stumble because they failed to complete their IP due diligence.

It doesn’t have to be that way for you. With a tactical combination of freedom-to-operate and clearance searches, you can identify and mitigate risks to your business. Plus, this gives you a great insight into what your competitors are working on and can help you find new business opportunities.

Where do I start?

IP is a hugely valuable asset for New Zealand businesses. A good IP strategy is essential to take a small startup to a world-class leader. But it can be a long, difficult path to get your IP sorted and there can be a lot of pitfalls along the way. That’s why most successful businesses have an experienced guide to help navigate the world of IP.

Ellis Terry are experts in IP in New Zealand. We have worked with dozens of well-known local and international businesses to make the best use of IP. Get in touch with one of our team, and we will guide you through the IP system and help your business reach the next level.