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Heartbreak Hotel: The IP Laundry List For Start-ups

01 September, 2011

One of the more endearing aspects of my clients is their sheer belief. In the recent years, we have had the pleasure of working with a number of technology start-ups and I have come up with a laundry list of IP advice that should be applicable to companies of any size (but perhaps better implemented when the cycle from inception to execution is smaller).

Separate goals from dreams: Dream big but set tangible goals. Steve Jobs was recently reported to have 313 patents, which list him in the set of inventors. I would say that being the next Steve Jobs is not a bad dream but as the adage goes, Rome was not built in a day, and neither was Apple. Start by documenting your ideas in a notebook it is really as simple as that! Building constructive practices and investing in training are one-time methods to ensure good turnover from your team. Always remember that ideas are better when peer-reviewed and more than one idea-generator within a team is always good. Continuously refine your idea over months and years, take notes when your developers are talking. Have weekly meetings with everyone involved. The best ideas come when people have different viewpoints, challenges and solutions to present.

Understand what you are not: Who you are will be a consequence of your actions. Identify clearly whether or not you believe in what an asset buys you be it time, money, protection or just a plain defence mechanism against competitors. If your core beliefs are not for IP, then believe that end to end; don't change your mind temporarily to please anyone. On the other hand, if you feel that competitive and strategic tools serve a different function than philosophical beliefs (which are also very important for personal satisfaction), separate the two out and go after protecting the one or two key ideas you have embodied in your work aggressively.

Budget: Figure out if you can have numbers associated with what the exercise might cost you and set that aside. Don't overstep that budget and be happy with the end result. Remember the point about tangible goals.

Give credit where credit is due: Make IP filings an inclusive process in the company, but make it clear who the key stakeholders are. Employees are more likely to work harder on fine-tuning ideas if you motivated them with ownership in terms of having their names down on the patent application. Make it clear (contractually or otherwise) that the IP belongs to the company as they are the ones funding the exercise. Clarity and straight-talk are going to run miles longer than secret meetings and conspiracy theories. I attribute our culture of attrition to the culture that companies create identify the creative talent that will not always run towards the highest bidder and do everything you can to retain that talent.

Don't be a snob: It's not that patents are much more snobbish and better than trademarks or copyrights or designs. Each IPR has its own place in the portfolio. With Mantri Developers recently changed its logo, they also went around and changed all the doors in their various housing projects. Brand recall, especially visual brand recall is very important. And goodwill is what you generate when customers identify visually with the brand first.

Go the last mile: Take time to put in the hard hours upfront, before you file a patent in specific. Spend the time it takes to identify close competitors (use the free resources of the USPTO and the EPO), but don't get lost in the sea of information. The time it all stops making sense or looks pretty futile, ask your service provider for the best way forward, given your budget for the exercise. Full-blown subject matter searches should be something you do only if you are convinced that you have an amazing idea that is going to sell like hot-cakes, are worried about infringing a particular competitor in similar markets or if you have the budget and the R&D spending available to create and document this trajectory.

Time heals all: Even in the worst case, if your idea does not succeed or you have an unanticipated bottle neck that holds you back or makes you abandon the ship fully, use the provisions in the IP system (specifically the patent system) that buys you time. The PCT proposes a system of worldwide filing wherein a disclosure is made public, giving the inventor or company a global stage to showcase the invention and claim priority on their ideas. India being a signatory to the PCT implies that patents applied for in India, if converted to a PCT filing within the prescribed time period, will be afforded priority, based on the date on which the patent was filed in India. This, as opposed to filing a PCT application in the first shot, affords an inventor or a company a slightly lower expenditure while allowing them to fine-tune their ideas before applying for a PCT application. Don't get swayed by ineffective practices when you don't have the budget.

Ditch the Gucci Bag attitude: Go with a set of service providers who believe in your product, can talk in the same language and have efficient processes. Pay the premium for domain expertise (Tally, for example, is not hugely complex for someone who has hacked a boot loader, but I still hire auditors, just because they know what they are doing) and trust the service provider who takes pride in a job well done. Don't pay premiums for size of the firm, their air-conditioning and most importantly, dress sense.


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Heartbreak Hotel: The IP Laundry List For Start-ups

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