Intellectual property (IP) can be a valuable asset to your business and a vital element of your competitive advantage. Effective intellectual property management ensures that you have the right intellectual property protection and can effectively exploit your IP.
The first step to effective intellectual property management is an intellectual property audit – identifying the key IP your business owns.
Intellectual property typically includes innovative products, designs, processes and so on. Your IP also includes various aspects of your brand – from brand names and logos to your reputation generally. The special know-how and trade secrets you have – for example, your business plan and the data you hold on customers – can also be important forms of IP.
At the same time as identifying your intellectual property, you should aim to assess how much the IP is worth to you. It will only be worthwhile investing time and money in protecting your intellectual property if you can exploit it profitably.
Some forms of intellectual property are automatically protected. For example, original works such as books and new music are automatically protected by copyright, many new designs are protected by design right and so on. You are also protected to some extent against ‘passing off’ by other businesses trying to cash in on your reputation.
But in many cases, intellectual property protection is not automatic – or stronger forms of protection are available. Options can include patenting inventions and registering designs or trade marks. For example, you might want to register your business name as a trade mark.
Obtaining these kinds of IP protection typically requires you to show that your intellectual property is original, and to pay the appropriate fees to the Intellectual Property Office. If you plan to exploit your intellectual property internationally, you may want to pay additional fees for protection overseas.
Keeping information confidential can be an alternative form of IP protection. Suitable employment contracts, confidentiality agreements and so on can help protect your trade secrets.
You can exploit your intellectual property yourself — for example, by manufacturing and selling your patented product. Alternatively, you might licence or assign (sell) your intellectual property to another business that can exploit it more effectively. In a similar way, franchising your business to independent franchisees can be an effective way of exploiting your brand and know-how.
At the same time, you need to remain vigilant to protect the value of your intellectual property. Other businesses may well infringe your intellectual property rights. It’s up to you to detect infringements and take action to enforce your rights. You will need to take advice on the best options, trying to avoid costly and risky litigation.