Innovative ideas can take many forms, and an idea may be revolutionary and disruptive, or it may be incremental and founded on established technology. Equally, the process for identifying innovative ideas can take many forms. The main driver for selecting an appropriate process will very likely be the size of your organisation.
For individuals or very small companies, the process of innovation harvesting may be straightforward and carried out on an ad-hoc basis. The process may simply take the form of contacting a patent attorney when a bright idea springs to mind. However, make sure that when inventors are concentrating on small increments they don’t fail to report a significant innovation over the state-of-the-art technology.
At the other end of the scale, for large multinationals, the innovation harvesting process may be target led, with goals for the number of patent filings for each development team to meet. However, ensure that fundamental innovations are treated appropriately, and not just as another step towards the goal.
Somewhere in the middle there are SMEs, who may only develop a handful of innovative ideas per year. It is particularly important for SMEs not to lose sight of these innovations.
What Can You Do To Ensure That Your IP Is Recognised & Protected?
- Conduct regular audits of ongoing product development projects. Audits ensure that all innovations are captured, not just the ones that make it to the final product. Just because a solution is not the optimum solution for your product, does not necessarily mean a competitor would not want to use it in a competing product. Building a strong portfolio of intellectual property protection can often mean protecting not only the innovations that make it to a final product, but also the innovations developed along the way. This will limit your competitors’ freedom to design around and avoid infringement. Ask questions in the audit such as: What’s going on? What’s new about the product/process? What’s important? What’s valuable, and why does it benefit us? What problems are being overcome? How else can you do that? What’s critical? What are our competitors doing? The answers will not only improve your development process, but will likely form the basis for any discussion with a patent attorney when you seek to protect the innovation.
- Regularly train engineers on the basics of IP protection. For example, the hurdle for novelty and inventive step of an innovation is often far lower than expected by most engineers – it does not have to be fiendishly clever to be patentable. This may be done in conjunction with an annual IP audit with your patent attorney where all aspects of your patent portfolio are considered to ensure your IP budget is being used wisely.
- Impress upon engineers that their innovations are vital to the company, and that identifying and protecting those innovations is part and parcel of the engineer’s job. Engineers, and even senior managers, often do not see intellectual property as the asset it is. Make IP part of the company culture.
- Provide engineers with an invention disclosure document to enable them to easily capture the innovation in real time. The completed document will form the basis for filing a new patent application. It also provides both the company and the engineer with a record of their developments.
- Consider an inventor reward programme to encourage engineers to consider IP in everything they do. However, care must be taken not to encourage engineers to inflate their ideas just to obtain the reward; staged payments at each step of the patent process (say, on filing and then on grant) may alleviate this tendency, and keep the engineer engaged later in the process where their input may again be needed.
Are Patents The Only Option?
If you identify an innovation, you do not necessarily need to protect it by way of a patent. Ask yourself some questions first:
- Do we need to make our innovation public?
- e.g. is the innovation a process that can be kept a trade secret?
- What will the patent be worth to our business, and does this outweigh the cost of obtaining patent protection?
- Are there other significant barriers to our competitors entering the market?
- e.g. can our competitors afford the significant infrastructure costs in order to produce the improved product?
- What is the expected lifespan of the product embodying the invention?
- e.g. if the product is only expected to be desirable for a short period of time then patent protection may not be commercially viable.
Don’t donate your IP to the world by accident, contact us for help with innovation capture.
This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.