Companies like Facebook and Twitter show that intellectual property isn't the must-have it once was. So why are Google, Apple, and Microsoft spending billions on it?
How important is intellectual property protection to your startup? Not too long ago, defensible IP was one of the top things venture capitalists wanted to see in a startup. But the success of several high-profile tech startups, such as Twitter and Facebook, that are relatively weak on patentable intellectual property, has caused many to rethink that assumption. After all, creating and maintaining a robust IP portfolio is expensive. Patents don’t determine whether a startup will be able to scale. And the lean startup model is all about getting to market fast with the minimum viable product. Launch first, patent later… if at all.
But every startup – lean or not – needs to plan for success. If your startup starts to scale quickly, a strong IP portfolio will be vitally important to your ability to play the long game. The world’s largest innovators, including Google, Microsoft and Apple, seem to agree. During the past six months, these companies have spent more than $18 billion on intellectual property in the voice space alone. They’re investing top dollar to ensure that their corporate IP portfolios are diverse, rich in innovation, and allow them to hedge against many possible futures.
So what should startups do to protect their IP assets?
Patent what is important to others, not just you
Make time to get smart on intellectual property. Educate yourself and team on the basics of trademarks, copyrights, patents, and trade secrets. Investing a day or two early on will save headaches later.
Reduce costs by doing your own IP searches first. Start with a Google patent search at google.com/patents.
Work with an attorney who specializes in intellectual property and ask for a fixed rate to file.
Save money by working with a patent attorney from a different geography. Ivy-league lawyers in Wisconsin are just as good as Ivy-league lawyers in New York City. The cost savings may be upwards of 50%, and sometimes more.
Patents aren't your only asset. Conduct an audit to identify all your registered and unregistered trademarks and copyrights.
Invest in well-written non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Make sure your employment agreements, licenses, sales contracts and technology transfer agreements all protect your intellectual property too, right from the get-go.
File as fast as you can. A patent application holds your place in line. You will have 12 months from that initial submission to expand upon your filing. And remember, US patents can take more than five years to issue.
Investigate international patents if key competitors are outside the US. A US patent will not protect you against competitors in Europe, never mind China.
Think hard about the future. From your vantage point, what does the future look like? Use this information to devise your patent strategy, and to figure out which of your work needs to be legally protected. From there, your patent applications should flow.
As President Lincoln once remarked, the patent system adds "the fuel of interest to the fire of genius." IP rights, which include patents, trademarks, trade secrets and copyrights--even the right URLs--play an essential role in monetizing innovation. If you make it easy for others to steal your ideas, you can ultimately end up washing away your own path to success.
Kelly Fitzsimmons: Kelly is a well-known entrepreneur who has built and sold several companies. Currently, she is the co-founder and director of HarQen, a next generation web-telephony company. She is an alumna of Springboard Enterprises, and a contributor to Springboard's Been There, Run That column.