Protecting intellectual property is a key challenge that is tricky, but specialist skills and knowledge help avoid the pitfalls that could destroy valuable innovations.
Callaghan Innovation is New Zealand’s innovation agency who run a wide range of programmes, funded by central government, to support and help startup technology businesses. One of these is Innovation IP, now renamed Beyond IP.
Intangible assets, including intellectual property (IP), can make up to 80% of the value of knowledge based businesses that develop and commercialise technology so it makes sense to protect this, not just in New Zealand, but also overseas. IP protection ranges from familiar methods, such as copyright, through trade secrets and trademarks to patents and registered designs. It also stretches to plant variety rights to protect plant breeding and geographical indications to protect regionally specific products such as wine and other foodstuffs. In our online world even the humble domain name is potentially a valuable piece of intellectual property.
IP protection is governed by strict rules to ensure fairness for everyone and most countries have agreed on the overall framework. However, navigating the myriad of regulations, timeframes and applications is a potential minefield for the unwary. Putting a foot wrong and releasing information at the wrong time may mean a valuable invention becomes unprotectable once it has entered the public domain.
Callaghan’s Innovation IP programme has been designed for IP novices. It pairs the technology business with IP specialists to undertake a two step programme designed to upskill the startup and to mentor them into the maze of IP protection. Stage One is focused on IP strategy where the business identifies its IP assets and evaluates their current level of protection after completing a workshop to learn how the IP jigsaw fits together.
Once this IP stocktake has been completed an IP implementation plan is developed to identify what needs to be done to strengthen and formalise the protection of the IP assets held. This invariably means registration of assets but it also means putting in place the necessary legal protections to ensure the confidentiality of sensitive information known to employees and contractors. This must not only consider the domestic New Zealand situation but also the international situation for any business that plans to be active offshore.
The flip side of IP protection is freedom to operate. Whereas protection of your own IP is essential, this also applies to everyone else so when developing and commercialising technology it is important not to infringe IP held by others. Whereas you are free to independently discover what others have discovered you are not free to use what others have registered. Avoiding IP infringement minimises a significant business risk.
Freedom to operate involves a careful search of similar IP that may already be registered. If found, this will require the registered IP to either be avoided or licensed for use from its owner. These tactical considerations are the focus of the second stage of Innovation IP.
We joined the Innovation IP programme in June last year and have worked with PotterIP as specialist IP strategists. By systematically working through our technology development programme we have learnt to understand what is IP and what is not, what can be protected and what cannot, but more importantly what needs to be done to achieve the necessary IP protection and how to do it.
Protecting IP is critical for any technology business as it secures the core of the business that will eventually generate economic returns that can be reinvested for further development. IP protection now sits at the centre of our strategic development and we have a plan to navigate into the future to avoid the pitfalls that may destroy the unwary.
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