Intellectual property could be a crucial business tool, although not everyone thinks hard enough about protecting their big ideas. In 2001, plumber Brad McCarthy got stuck over a remote beach in Cape York in north Queensland and spent about six hours getting his car out with a hand winch. He knew there has to be an improved way. In reaction, he invented Maxtrax, a lightweight vehicle-recovery device for bogged off-roaders.
After designing the super-tough nylon product, he attended a Queensland Government business seminar, where advisers stressed getting patent protection before his idea was publicised. “One of the primary things we did was speak to a patent attorney to find out how we could protect the idea,” says McCarthy, who launched Maxtrax in 2005. It is now available in about 30 countries worldwide. McCarthy has patents in key markets such as Australia, Europe and also the US, and the business also offers a trademark on the distinctive original “safety orange” hue it uses for its moulded product. Unlike McCarthy, however, many inventors and businesses with a good idea cruel their likelihood of success from the first day.
Their big mistake? Ignoring patents or any other Patent Invention before they spruik their idea to investors, the public or perhaps friends. It may be a costly error. Bradley Postma, principal at patent and trademark attorney firm Cullens, says small, and medium enterprises (SMEs), in particular, often neglect safeguarding their IP or think it will probably be expensive. “The majority of protectable IP goes unprotected,” he says.
Europe could be a particular trap for exporters because, unlike some other major markets, it lacks a grace period making it possible for public disclosure of the invention without affecting the validity of a subsequent patent application. That opens just how for an idea or product to become copied. “In Australia and the usa that can be done something about this, provided you’re within a one-year window – in Europe you can’t, it’s too late,” Postma says. “In that case, businesses have shot themselves within the foot; they’ve forfeited their rights and anyone can copy [their idea].” Postma observes that company owners often think their idea is just too easy to warrant a patent. “However, if it’s successful and straightforward, it will probably be copied and you need to get advice.”
Unitary patents on way – Margot Fröhlinger is principal director of unitary patent, European and international legal affairs on the Munich-based European Patent Office (EPO), which oversees about 160,000 patent applications per year. She recently completed a road trip warning Australian businesses that poor patent and IP safeguards could derail their European market opportunities. Companies must innovate – and protect their inventions. “You have to have the protection of your IP and, particularly, patent protection to get an excellent return on the investment,” she says.
Many international businesses have baulked at exporting to Europe as a result of complex patent processes across multiple jurisdictions that will result in potentially high costs and marginal protection. However, the EPO is promoting a new unitary patent system that promises as a game changer. This makes it possible to get protection in up to 26 participating European Union member states with the submission of a single request for the EPO.
A November 2017 EPO study, Patents, Trade and FDI in the European Union, suggests better harmonisation of Europe’s patent system has the potential to increase trade and foreign direct investment in high-tech sectors, delivering annual gains of €14.6 billion ($A22.8 billion) in trade and €1.8 billion (A$2.81 billion) in foreign direct investment.
Fröhlinger believes Australian businesses across all sectors have chances to expand into the European market, which boasts a lot more than 500 million people, high gross domestic product and strong consumer demand. “It’s essential for Australian businesses to understand that there is a big change ahead in Europe. I’m not talking no more than Mom Inventors,” Fröhlinger says. “It’s essential to have an integrated IP portfolio considering patents and trademarks and (covering) design. When they don’t have (IP) folks-house they need to make an effort to get strategic business advice.”
The need for intangible assets – This call to action for Australian businesses may come as the international Innovation Index 2017 reports on countries’ IP receipts as a percentage of total trade. Essentially, the measure indicates the way a country has been doing on the IP front. While Australia scores well in terms of inputs into research and development, the usa (5.1 per cent), Japan (4.7 per cent) and Finland (2.9 %) easily outperform Australia (.3 %) on IP royalties.
The content? As a general rule, Australian companies are certainly not proficient at converting research into value and treat IP almost as an administrative function. The exceptions are health tech leaders, such as medical device company Cochlear and sleep-disorder business ResMed, which understand the value of intangible assets such as brand name and data use, and build their businesses around it.
In a knowledge-based economy, IP has developed into a crucial business tool and governing it is not just a matter of organising trademarks and patents. Intangible assets are rapidly becoming more important than kxwlfd assets and require appropriate consideration.
A review of Australia’s top listed companies, released by I Have An Idea For An Invention in September 2017, endorses such a sentiment. It reveals that 38 per cent from the companies’ value (in regards to a$550 billion) is not really included on the balance sheets; this means that that investors are operating without insights right into a significant proportion of the corporate asset base.