Consumer rights: From brilliant idea to turning a profit

Patents...and setting up a group bank account

Q. I have been working on an energy-saving invention that could save people a lot of money.

I don’t know how to protect the idea, and I’m worried that if I talk to people who could advise me they may steal the idea or demand a big chunk of its value in return for investing in it. What do you advise?

FT, Bristol

A. There are four ways to protect something like this: patents protect how things work and what they are made of; registered designs protect what something looks like; copyright protects things like books; trademarks protect brands.

It sounds as if a patent is appropriate in your case. Most inventions are new machines, products or industrial processes and they can be patented. Ideas, aesthetic creations or scientific discoveries without specified applications can’t. To get a patent, your invention has to be genuinely new or involve an inventive or unobvious step – something that takes a previous machine or product beyond its earlier capacity; and it has to be capable of being put into use.

Approaching big companies that do similar things is not a good idea, but, if you can afford it, book an appointment with a patent attorney. They will be able to tell you if you’re likely to get a patent and will help you through the process which can be complicated. Many will offer a free first appointment. Try the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys at Another good source of information is www.trevorbaylisbrands. com, set up by the inventor Trevor Baylis. He’s been in your shoes.

The first person to patent something owns it, so you should move quickly in case someone else is working on something similar. Once it’s patented you might want to find an investor. Most will want a share in return for putting up the money to get it into production, but it is surely better to own half of something that is making you money than all of something that isn’t. Good luck.

Q. Along with some friends, I am setting up a group to help mentor young women coming into the engineering industry. We don’t have any money to worry about yet but we will be attempting to get sponsorship for events and so on, so we need a bank account. As treasurer, can I open an account in my name and take in and pay out in the same way as myown account?

JJ, Kent

A. You may find some banks are confused by your request to open an account for a club or group; others may have what’s usually called a treasurer’s account. Shop around. The account you end up with will be more or less the same as an ordinary business account. You’ll have to go through all the same checks of identity and credit- worthiness.

You want an account that doesn’t charge you for its day-to-day operation; where there’s no minimum amount required to open it; where you can add additional signatories, you don’t have to give notice to withdraw funds, and you get free monthly statements. You probably won’t find an account that pays interest on any credit balance and you’re likely to be charged for adding services such as a Bacs payment system. You’ll be able to go overdrawn only by arrangement, but that’s not a bad thing. If the bank hasrelationship managers, ask to have one allocated to help you with your various queries.

The club should choose a bank account by passing a resolution at a committee meeting. As treasurer, it’s best to set up your financial system so that more than one personcan sign cheques. Money should be banked immediately and you need to keep the receipts and books in a business like way. The person who opens all the mail and records the money that comes in should be someone other than the treasurer. You need to safeguard yourself from any possible accusations of fraud or theft should money go missing. You must put in place a clear and agreed plan for handling money. The group should also appoint someone (an auditor when you can afford the fees) as an independent examiner to check the accounts.

It’s worth considering whether you would benefit from setting yourselves up as a charity. At present, your club will have a chairperson, secretary and treasurer. If you register as a charity the structure is essentially the same but, as well as making it easier to raise money, you can get advice from the Charity Commission about issues such as tax, VAT and insurance. And you will be able to choose from bank accounts specifically for community groups, which usually offer cheaper, more straightforward banking.


Do you have a consumer complaint?

Write to Julian Knight at The Independent on Sunday, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5HF