Intellectual property can be a crucial business tool, however, not everyone thinks hard enough about protecting their big ideas. In 2001, plumber Brad McCarthy got stuck on the remote beach in Cape York in north Queensland and spent about 6 hours getting his car out with a hand winch. He knew there should be a better way. In response, 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, in which the advisers stressed getting patent protection before his idea was publicised. “Among the first things we did was talk to a patent attorney to find out how we could protect the concept,” says McCarthy, who launched Maxtrax in 2005. It is now available in about 30 countries worldwide. McCarthy has Inventhelp News in key markets including Australia, Europe as well as the US, as well as the business also has a trademark on the distinctive original “safety orange” hue it uses for its moulded product. Unlike McCarthy, however, many inventors and businesses with recommended cruel their odds of success from day one.
Their big mistake? Ignoring patents or any other intellectual property protection before they spruik their idea to investors, people or even friends. It can become a costly error. Bradley Postma, principal at patent and trademark attorney firm Cullens, says small and medium enterprises (SMEs), specifically, often neglect safeguarding their IP or think it will likely be expensive. “The vast majority of protectable IP goes unprotected,” he says.
Europe can become a particular trap for exporters because, unlike some other major markets, it lacks a grace period making it possible for public disclosure of your invention without affecting the validity of the subsequent patent application. That opens the way for the idea or product to get copied. “In Australia and america you can make a move about this, provided you’re inside a one-year window – in Europe you can’t, it’s too late,” Postma says. “In that case, businesses have shot themselves in the foot; they’ve forfeited their rights and anyone can copy [their idea].” Postma observes that business people often think their idea is too very easy to warrant a patent. “However, if it’s successful and simple, it will probably be copied and you should get advice.”
Unitary patents on way – Margot Fröhlinger is principal director of unitary patent, European and international legal affairs in the Munich-based European Patent Office (EPO), which oversees about 160,000 patent applications annually. She recently completed a road trip warning Australian companies that poor patent and IP safeguards could derail their European market opportunities. Companies must innovate – and protect their inventions. “You require the protection of your IP and, specifically, patent protection in order to get a good return on your own investment,” she says.
Many international businesses have baulked at exporting to Europe as a result of complex patent processes across multiple jurisdictions that can end in potentially high costs and marginal protection. However, the EPO is promoting a whole new unitary patent system that promises as a game changer. This makes it easy to get protection in as much as 26 participating European Union member states using the submission of a single request towards the EPO.
A November 2017 EPO study, How To Patent A Product Idea, Trade and FDI in the European Union, suggests better harmonisation of Europe’s patent system provides 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 in to the European market, which boasts more than 500 million people, high gross domestic product and strong consumer demand. “It’s extremely important for Australian businesses to understand that there is a big change ahead in Europe. I’m not talking only about patents,” Fröhlinger says. “It’s very important to get an integrated IP portfolio considering patents and trademarks and (covering) design. When they don’t have (IP) individuals-house they need to make an effort to get strategic business advice.”
The price of intangible assets – This call to action for Australian businesses comes as the Global Innovation Index 2017 reports on countries’ IP receipts as a percentage of total trade. Essentially, the measure indicates how a country is performing on the IP front. While Australia scores well when it comes to inputs into research and development, the US (5.1 %), Japan (4.7 %) and Finland (2.9 per cent) easily outperform Australia (.3 per cent) on IP royalties.
Your message? As being a general rule, Australian companies are not great at converting research into value and treat IP almost as an administrative function. The exceptions are health tech leaders, like medical device company Cochlear and sleep-disorder business ResMed, which understand the value of intangible assets like 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 dependent on organising trademarks and Inventors Help. Intangible assets are rapidly becoming more important than tangible assets and require appropriate consideration.
A review of Australia’s top listed companies, released by Glasshouse Advisory in September 2017, endorses such a sentiment. It reveals that 38 per cent in the companies’ value (in regards to a$550 billion) will not be included on their jjnywy sheets; this means that that investors are operating without insights in to a significant proportion from the corporate asset base.