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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006, 10:48 GMT
The business of intellectual property
Compact disc
The compact disc was patented by Dutch giant Philips
Intellectual property (IP) expert Julian Nolan is the newest member of the BBC News Website's small business panel of experts.

Here he explains what IP is exactly about, and why it can be vitally important for even the smallest firms.

Let me get straight to the point - intellectual property is not just about patents.

It's also about brand names, photographs, music, software, paintings and many other creations of the mind.

In a world where these are increasingly highly sought after, the collective value of the associated intellectual property (IP) has never been greater.

More importantly there's a good chance that some of this value - which may be in the form of patents, copyright or registered trademarks - could have an important role to play in your business.

From product features to the name under which a product or service is sold, IP can be key in building a sustainable business and remaining one step ahead of your competitors.

Absolute right

A good place to start thinking about IP is in your business plan. Some of the key aspects to consider include:

  • Patents. These are legal documents describing a technical teaching/invention in detail. For the duration of the patent an absolute right is granted giving the owner the ability to prevent anyone else from using the invention.

  • Copyright. This gives legal protection for original works (such as artistic or musical) and includes sound recordings, films and broadcasts. It also covers software. Copyright occurs automatically when the work is produced and published, and can be a useful redress when patent protection is not available.

  • Registered trademark. A trademark is the legal basis for the development of brand identity, and as such can form a key part in the development and recognition of a business or product.

    Considering IP in a business plan can, however, be only the starting point for actively managing this potentially valuable asset.

    For some, active management means giving third parties access to their "IP store" through the execution of strategic and operational licensing plans.

    One of the most attractive characteristics of doing this is that IP revenue is usually, by its nature, high margin.

    Accordingly, this slug of bottom line revenue can have a dramatic effect on profits and also help to drive year-on-year growth; two attributes which help explain why active IP management is on the increase.

    IP however also presents a number of other interesting possibilities.

    Competitive edge

    For those businesses looking to raise financing, IP can be highly valued by investors and analysts alike. For example, the number of relevant patents owned by a business can significantly affect its valuation, both pre and post a share floatation.

    One of the most direct opportunities is the unique right of use provided by a patent, copyright or registered trademark.

    This allows you to carve out a competitive position for your products and company.

    Not only does this provide a good reason as to why IP should feature in your business plan, but also prompts the thought provoking question: what might be the IP strategy of your competitors, and what IP do they already own?

    To ask Julian Nolan a question about how best to protect your firm's intellectual property use the email form below.

    Alternatively you can email another member of our small business and entrepreneurship panel of experts by clicking on one of the links on the right.

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