Sara Ludlam

Sara Ludlam of Leeds-based boutique law firm 3volution

How to maximise the commercial success of your innovations

Intellectual property expert Sara Ludlam explains how entrepreneurs and businesses can maximise the commercial success of their innovations through intellectual property...

We Brits are well known for being brilliant innovators but what the vast majority of UK businesses seem to do less well is make real money from their clever innovations. A few do of course, such as Dual Cyclone vacuum inventor James Dyson, kitchenware designers Anthony and Richard Joseph and fragrance pioneer Jo Malone. How do they do it? These highly successful entrepreneurs understand that maximising the commercial potential of a new product, process or brand starts not with heavy weight promotional campaigns but tactical protection.

Getting the right protection in place at the outset, be that patents, copyright, trade marks or registered design rights, can make all the difference between commercial success and failure. Whether you intend to sell, license or seek further investment, there is a direct correlation between how effectively inventions and new developments are safeguarded, and their value.

So, which type of protection will add most value? Well that depends...

Let’s start with appearances. If your new product has a distinctive look or shape, you could use design rights to secure its value and stop others copying it. Unregistered design rights automatically protect the original functional features of your design but not how it looks. Registered design rights protect the look of your product.

If you register design rights when the development phase is completed, you will achieve much higher levels of protection. I advised my client N2M Limited, developers of the portable baby buggy rocker, The Rockit, to do this. Don't register too early or you may have to duplicate your costs if the design changes. However, this might be a good strategy if you have to disclose the design before it reaches production stage – for example if you have an opportunity to win a design prize as the Rockit did.

A common pitfall with registering designs is keeping them updated. You may have registered your design at concept stage before heading out to show it to the world at a trade show for instance. Having garnered lots of useful feedback, don’t forget to register any design changes that are implemented before going to market with the finished product. The registered design must match the final design exactly or your registration will not protect what you sell. 

Probably the most widely used form of protection is copyright, although interestingly many innovators don’t realise they have it. This is because it is automatic; it is also free and relatively long lasting. Whilst these factors may seem to make copyright the ‘go to’ intellectual property guardian, there are several significant downsides to copyright, including the limited types of work that can be protected and the fact that protection is only from copying unlike registered design protection which gives you monopoly rights i.e. you don’t have to prove copying. 

Companies using third parties to develop new products or processes, software developers for example, should draft their outsourcing contracts very carefully to ensure they don’t come unstuck over who owns the copyright. If copyright hasn’t been correctly assigned you could end up not owning the new development you have paid for and be left with nothing to sell.  

Far greater protection is provided by applying for a patent. If you have invented an entirely novel product or process you would be wise to investigate patenting. It can be a costly and lengthy procedure but done effectively it can provide you with a highly secure route to maximising sales potential.

Sheffield-based Iceotope’s mainframe computer cooling technology was unveiled earlier this year and is already attracting a lot of interest. To increase its value and to keep competitors at bay, the company has invested in the patenting process for all of its new developments. In order to gain full protection from a patent it is vital to ensure all marketing materials and products clearly state patent pending and registration numbers.

Many successful businesses rely on trade marks to effectively lever additional value from their products and brands, The Hurlingham Polo Association for example. Regarded as the ‘Wimbledon’ of the polo-playing world, the 142 year-old association is the governing body for Polo in the UK, Ireland, the United Arab Emirates and a number of other countries worldwide. It has cleverly invested in trade marking its distinguished brand (word marks and logos), as well as developing licensing agreements. Together these will bring significant additional income streams from luxury goods and clothing manufacturers who pay to produce goods capitalising on the club’s heritage.     

Putting a structured IP plan in place is a good idea, as Record Power Limited is aware. The wood working machinery and accessories company has been forward-thinking in its layered approach to maximising the value of its intellectual property. Choosing not to rely solely on its valuable trade mark and tremendous reputation in the tooling world, Record Power is investing in an intellectual property strategy to improve its market position by the strategic use of registered designs and patents.   

More than one type of protection is usually best and of course, if you have been prudent enough to put registered design rights, trade marks or patents in place it’s important to remember to review them at every key stage of the business’ development, to ensure they are fit for purpose. 

This brief introduction to protecting your intellectual property gives a simplified overview of the situation; there are many different aspects to be considered. To be absolutely sure you’re making the most of your commercial potential, speak to a professional intellectual property advisor and be a savvy entrepreneur as well as a clever innovator.