10 Things I wish I knew about Intellectual Property when I was younger…
By: Jeremy O’Hare
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Every generation of young people wants to change the world. And they do, in some way.
Right now in someone’s studio flat, or halls of residence, or on a gap year adventure is the next founder of a tech giant, a publishing phenomenon, or an inventing genius. Of that, there is no doubt. But some may not get the success or recognition they deserve for their originality, creativity, or inventiveness. The one thing that can often make or break an entrepreneur or business venture is getting their intellectual property right, the first time.
Here is a list of the most common mistakes that I’ve come across in helping thousands of entrepreneurs, creatives, and inventors. I’m a little older now having helped so many but I hope what you read here will make all of us that much wiser no matter how young we are.
1. Knowing how important Intellectual Property actually is
You don’t know what you don’t know and that’s the point of our first tip. For any new business (or established) not understanding how IP can protect your creations and innovations is a fundamental mistake. There are two sides to IP; one is preventing unauthorised use of what you create and the other is maximising your existing IP as an asset that can acquire value. And if you come to sell your business, a lot of its value potentially resides in your IP. Understanding this and building it into your business strategy will maximise your IP, and therefore, your business impact. But how? That’s the next point.
2. Getting to know the IP family
Want to patent your idea? Rebrand your design? Copyright your invention? Mixing metaphors is one thing but not understanding the different forms of IP and what they do is like being stuck in a maze without an exit. What’s more, knowing a thing you create in your business or a creative pursuit can often be protected by more than one form of Intellectual Property is a great help. I like to call them the IP family. Knowing the difference between them and the job they do will provide clarity, and help you formulate your IP strategy clearly. So, for the record, you patent your invention, register your design, and copyright your artistic expression. You trade mark your brand, keep quiet your trade secret and everything else is know-how known only to you. And as we’ll see, timing for all of this is key.
3. Don’t be late to register or protect your Intellectual Property
I’ve been an agony Uncle to many downhearted, once enthusiastic, start-ups. What has been the most common problem? ‘I started trading with this amazing brand only to find someone else was using it. It’s a fundamental mistake. What you think is an amazing name for a product or business is probably so amazing that someone else has got there first. So do your research online but also for the register of existing trade marks in the UK here. Our team in the Business & IP Centre’s around the country can assist you with how to do a basic search. This of course is relevant to all the other forms of IP, so it’s always good to register or protect as soon as you can establish originality.
4. Don’t overshare and the importance of confidentiality
We’ve all done it. It’s irresistible. We’re so excited and captured by our new business proposition or new gizmo that will change the world that we ‘overshare’. Pub environments are particularly risky. If you do have something of real potential, why tell the world, or just anyone else you know? The other thing I hear often is that ‘so and so stole my idea’. Unfortunately, the idea shouldn’t have been shared in the first place. Knowing what a non-disclosure agreement is and when to use them, is a good first step to securing your idea if you need to share it with interested parties. In fact, when it comes to inventions, anything already known in the world invalidates your application. So, as a rule of thumb, share nothing with no one, unless necessary, and with the right protection in place.
5. Assuming a good idea is a commercial idea is the easiest mistake.
This is a big one but I have to say it. Lots of people have amazing ideas for inventions or services and create incredible things, but not all of these will be commercially successful. Why? Because there’s no market value to them. The thing you create doesn’t satisfy a big enough demand where people are prepared to pay for it. So a good exercise early on is to ask yourself three questions; what problem am I trying to solve? How big a problem is it really? And does my invention or business provide a good enough solution? Inventors very often fall into this trap. They discover a solution to something without considering the size, and therefore commercial value of the problem. History proves this, as there are piles and piles of granted patents which never made it to market. Anybody care for spray on hair? Electric shoe polishers? But at least we can be reassured that even the biggest and boldest companies can fall into the same trap. Anyone own a Betamax?
6. Not market testing your new product or service.
With this in mind, it’s just good practice to prepare a robust business plan that includes some evidence of potential demand for your innovative product or service. Market research and testing are fundamental steps to get right early before properly launching. This helps to safeguard any future investment, both time and resource, and IP, that you subsequently put into the business. Within the British Library’s National Network of Business & IP Centres, you can do market research with some of the best researchers and publishers in any given industry. That will help to demonstrate that you’re on the right track (or not).
7. Not setting an IP budget.
There is a cost to registering some forms of IP, those that are known as registered rights. Specifically, these are patents, trademarks, and designs. The most costly are patents but you should do all your IP research early and work out what the most cost-effective options are balanced with maximum protection (supported by a sound business case). That way you’re on track to make judicious IP decisions that pay off. It’s also very helpful to list IP as a necessary cost alongside other costs such as marketing spend, operations, and staffing. Ultimately, if your IP is effective, the asset should pay for itself.
8. Not factoring in infringement costs
First, some bad news. There are no IP police. You will need to be alert to anyone else copying your invention, using your brand, or selling a different version of the same product you created. And then it’s up to you to act. Sadly, as your brand grows with your product or service, you should expect copycats. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, except when it takes out your bottom line or ruins your hard-earned reputation. Early and tough action on infringement is the best way to shut down any threats and that will almost always involve some legal expertise. So set aside a war chest in your IP defence but be reassured that there is professional help out there. And that’s when IP lawyers are there to fight for your interests. IP lawyers should be members of professional bodies such as CIPA or CITMA. Also, be aware of trading standards for some circumstances of infringement.
9. Not knowing what to ask an IP attorney
Ignorance is never a good thing, especially when trying to solve a complex problem like IP infringement or a new application for protection. That doesn’t mean you have to be an expert, by any stretch. But at least by having a good solid grounding and understanding of how IP works for you and your business means you can maximise the time and effort of any professional advice you seek. Knowing enough about something to ask really good questions and to evaluate the reply is more power to you and encouragement that your IP budget is paying back. Time is money (especially legal time) so cut out the IP small talk and get to the crux of the IP issue and its possible resolution.
10. Not starting with your Business & IP Centre or Patlib!
How could I not conclude by inviting anyone with an IP issue or question to get in touch with their local Business & IP Centre or Patlib (patent library) network? You’ll be able to talk with staff who have experience and are able to be a sounding board for you to make informed decisions that support your business. No matter what your age (but especially if you’re young), you deserve to be rewarded for your new and innovative creations! And intellectual property is there to ensure you do just that.
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