An Enlightened IP Strategy for the Osmotic Innovator

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In the last week we’ve discussed using Defensive Publications as a strategy to reduce the overhead associated with patent filings. However, we’ve never really given a detailed explanation of how this concept fits in an over-all intellectual property (IP) strategy for an innovating organization.

Often, in the excitement of creating new products from an innovation or invention the tendency is to rush directly from idea / proof of principle to the lawyers’ office to begin drafting patents. Why is it so ingrained in a corporation to patent any new idea or process? Perhaps for some it is because patents can be used as a measure of R&D productivity, effort, or inventiveness. Patents also offer a chance for recognition for inventors and the company amongst their peers. Finally, those responsible can find comfort in the fact that the organizations interests are protected from competition. However, as expressed in the prior posts patents can be an expensive way to protect intellectual property – besides the obvious cost of filing the documents across the globe the organization must also consider the financial cost over time to maintain the portfolio, the value of the time the legal department will spend managing the portfolio, and the impact on R&D productivity as resources are directed to fulfil the data and testing requirements (often outside of the focus of any related project). The filing fees for a patent can pale in comparison to the loss in productivity and resources that might be incurred by a simple patent filing. For resource constrained companies a better process is needed.

The figure above shows the process that might be used by enlightened organizations to manage the intellectual property strategy process. Rather than rushing from idea to patent, as often occurs, the identification of a new idea or innovation should lead to a strategic discussion. During that discussion a number of criteria might be used to evaluate the idea, leading to several possible outcomes.

The primary criteria that would be best utilized to direct the decision include:

  • Competitive Intensity (CI): the position of the organization in the market and in relation to its competitors, as well as market pressure, can dictate to a large extent the need to protect or the possibility of using a less resource intensive mechanism. In highly competitive spaces patenting may well be the best path forward, in spaces where a company has market leadership with few threats, disclosure (keeping the playing field level) may well be sufficient.
  • Disruptive Potential (DisPot): the likelihood of the innovation to transform the market or industry should also be taken into account. Disruptions creating new consumer benefits should be viewed differently than innovations that benefit only the company. For example, for a company that has a market leading position due to brand or scale an innovation allowing cheaper product manufacture may not require patent protection. Only if competitors had exclusive access to the IP would a real threat be created. In this case a level playing field may not hurt the market leader – the real competition is occurring on other fronts.
  • Strategic Importance (SI): for innovations in non-core areas the best IP strategy can vary depending on whether those areas may later become important or if protecting them from competition is a strategic necessity. This may also include whether technical innovations should be fully and comprehensively exploited or given a more cursory exploration to understand potential and obtain minimal protection or establish minimal freedom-to-operate.
  • Reverse Engineering Potential (REPot): For process, manufacturing, or chemical innovations where the consumer or competitor will see little difference in the product, the question of whether the innovation could be externally discovered through practice of the innovation must be considered.
  • Commercialization Viability (CV): The likelihood of commercialization of the innovation should also be considered. Also, if the innovation is likely only to enable another innovation or invention the resource dedicated toward protecting it may not need to be as highly prioritized.
  • Resource Intensity (RI): In organizations that are already very lean this discussion likely already occurs, however when determining the strategy to pursue the potential costs for creation of the IP as well as to maintain it (and possibly even to circumvent it if protection or FTO is not established) should be discussed. Resource intensity can include cost of creating, manpower needed to support, cost to maintain the IP

All of these considerations can be taken together to determine the best course of action. This will determine a Return-on-Investment (ROI) potential for the IP being considered. In fact, the entire strategic discussion could be reduced to an equation that allows further discussion on how the appropriate IP strategy is determined:

How can these criteria be used then to determine a path forward?

For situations where a very low IPROI is determined, simply doing nothing may be an option. If the innovation is not in a competitive arena, is not on-strategy, or is not enforceable, then the best use of resource could be to let the idea go.

For instances with a moderate IPROI the decision to patent, hold as a trade secret, or defensively publish can be determined according to the relative weight of the factors. An innovation found to have high strategic value and commercialization viability but low competitive intensity might be best protected through defensive publication, while in the opposite instance (high competitive intensity with high commercialization viability and low strategic importance) the value of a patent may be recognized. For projects with very low reverse engineering, potential trade secret protection could be the best route.

For scenarios with a very high IPROI going forward with a patent would almost always be advisable, though of course a number of instances where this is not the case can be imagined.

Obviously the area of IP strategy is a high importance to many organizations, however much of the focus in recent years has been on creating and managing large IP portfolios. For the osmotic innovator a better strategy is needed; one that balances resource scarcity with the need to create value for the company.

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