Intellectual property gives SMEs the chance to take centre stage
How to capture your ideas and protect them
IP is a volatile element in the growth mix. It has the potential to become your most valuable asset. Or you can lose yourself in a divisive, costly and complicated maze.
As a system, it is designed to reward you for creating and developing ideas, allowing you to defer many of the costs of acquiring it until you can prove your market.
Taken together, IP rights apply widely to your knowledge, your look and your technology. Some are free but hard to enforce. Others are registered but can be expensive to acquire.
Ideally, you want to create a series of protective layers to wrap around your idea, only investing in what the market values or what inconveniences your competitors.
From the start, it is worth asking how you can bring any of these rights into play, imagining what you could bring to the negotiating table or what evidence you might want to deploy in knocking back any challenges to your exclusivity.
Ask yourself these questions too late and ideas can slip beyond your control. So what options does anyone have?
- keep track of all those records, procedures, models and approvals that surround the development of your knowledge and your ideas. It is largely a matter of being clear from the start about what you own and what you want to keep confidential.
- use copyright to protect the thinking and the creativity within documents, in illustrations, as software or on the web. Copyright arises naturally. You just have to make sure you can prove you were the first to format any ideas you express.
- to protect your look and your shape, you can again rely on an automatic set of rights. For more certainty, you can register your designs at relatively low cost. Unusually in IP, you can do so retrospectively.
- if you start to sense that technologically you might be on to a winner, you have three options: be first to market and let the competition try to catch up; keep your idea a trade secret; or apply for a patent.
- patents are the surest form of protection for scientific and technical innovations. The challenge is to judge the extent of your claim geographically and commercially. The wider your ambition, the more expensive it becomes. The IP system gives you up to 30 months after making an initial claim to check out interest from potential customers and investors.
- once on the market, your name and your logo will be how you are identified and remembered. Again you can rely on automatic rights to prevent anyone copying you. However, it will be easier to take swift action and to extend the use of your brand, if you register for a trademark.
If you can find the right combination of rights for your knowledge, your innovation, your design and your brand, you can start to manage your IP as an asset in its own right. Even as a minor player, you can find yourself making a major impact.