Why does my business need intellectual property protection?

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In this article, Dr Christopher Hartland, patent attorney at leading European IP firm, Potter Clarkson, explains how robust intellectual property protection can be a valuable asset in its own right.

The successful commercialisation of a product or service is often preceded by a considerable investment in research and development These R&D costs are not purely financial but also include a substantial investment of human resources.  In addition, significant marketing costs may be incurred to establish and maintain a good reputation for the product or service.

Failure to adequately protect a company’s IP rights may allow competitors to “piggy back” for free on this R&D and marketing investment, potentially giving them a significant commercial advantage. Whereas, the company that has applied for a patent can stop competitors from stealing their ideas or otherwise taking an unfair advantage of the extensive R&D that no doubt went into the idea.

Once granted, a UK patent gives the owner a period of monopoly during which its innovation is protected in a number of ways. For a patent relating to a product, competitors are prevented from making, selling (or offering to sell), using, importing or even keeping the product in the UK. For patented processes, competitors cannot use or offer for use the process, nor can they sell, offer for sale, use, import or keep any of the products that are obtained directly from the patented process.

Intellectual Property, like other physical assets, can be bought and sold, or used to attract and secure finance.  In addition, IP rights can be licensed to other parties, either as a whole or in part.  As such, IP rights can be a valuable means of generating income and/or securing investment (particularly for SMEs).  Thus, your IP can do a lot more for you than just act as a deterrent to competitors.

Even if you decide not to obtain registered IP rights for your creation, you must consider whether your proposed commercial activity could infringe a third party's IP rights. It is important to carry out searching of existing registered IP, such as existing patents, trademarks and designs, to see whether you are free to exploit your invention, and an IP expert can help you do this.

What about the cost?

Securing IP rights can seem like a costly exercise, especially for SMEs, but should not be dismissed without understanding the potential for commercial gain. Sometimes a patent is not the most suitable route of protection, as the cost to secure a patent across all relevant markets is not justified by the projected sales of the product. In fast-moving sectors, it may be more appropriate to continually develop products while keeping details of products confidential for as long as possible to obtain the market lead. Maybe the appearance of your product, while unique, isn’t the most important part of the innovation and so a design isn’t appropriate, but you believe that your brand will be long-lasting and attract repeated sales, in which case consider your trademarks.

The above are just some of the considerations that should be made when deciding how best to protect your innovations, especially when there are budget constraints. An IP expert can guide you through this process so you get the optimal type of protection for your money, though it is important that they are consulted as early as possible in the innovation process.

If you have an innovative idea that will be core to your business and that will be used throughout a wide product or service range, patent protection is very frequently essential for obtaining the optimal commercial gain.

Taking action

IP can have a transformational impact on the success of a business so it is vital that organisations understand the value of their ideas and take the necessary steps to put adequate protection in place. When working on a new project, always keep in mind the scale of R&D that has been invested and the degree to which competitors might wish to copy the idea.

Build key questions into your product or service development process. Have you solved an existing problem in a new way? Have you found a new challenge and developed a way around it?  Does your product have a unique appearance? Do you want customers to invest in your brand? If the answer to these questions is yes, then it is time to find out how you can best protect your idea. Failing to do so is a risky strategy as it leaves the door wide open for your competitors to help themselves to your rightful property.

Need help putting together an IP strategy for your business? Christopher’s next article looks at how managing and protecting your IP in the right way can drive your innovations forward.