By Mary Adams
Intellectual property (IP) is a term that is usually used to refer to specific types of structural capital that enjoy special legal status. These include patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. Each of these categories has a specific body of law associated with it. Patents have to be approved by a national authority. Other categories do not require registration but are still protected under the law.
Legal protection can create a significant competitive advantage, depending on the circumstances. This legal definition and protection can also create opportunities for licensing IP rights outside the corporation. This strategy is getting a lot more attention today from organizations, consultants and software companies.
However, legal protection processes can be expensive and legal protection in itself is not a guarantee of competitive advantage. So, while you want to consult a good attorney to get the intricacies of the law correct, you should also try to also seek the advice of someone that has a good grasp of the strategic role of IP. You want to make sure that you file for protection when it makes sense. This decision involves a cost-benefit analysis. Some of the factors to consider include the cost of filing, the risk of disclosing your invention (disclosure is the only way to identify the idea that your want to protect), the competitive benefit of having a protected idea and the monetary benefit of being able to enforce and/or license your rights to other. Once you win a right, there are the practical and logistical challenges of managing the rights you obtain.
But these special legal systems are not the only way to “protect” your intangible capital. Our friend, Jackie Hutter (she calls herself a “recovering patent attorney”), pointed out to us that contracts are actually one of the most important ways of protecting your intangible capital. Good management of contractual relationships can have a big influence in customer and partner relationships (relationship capital) as well as key employee relationships (human capital) and acquired knowledge (structural capital).
One of the main ways that intangible capital gets protected is through its association with a strong business model. This goes for IP as much as for other kinds of intangibles.
In fact, the power of each of the components of your intangible capital is increased when they are combined with other knowledge components. Intangibles are a great example of the saying that “the value of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
While someone could steal or imitate specific aspects of your business, it is hard to duplicate the whole system. This is a major way that most companies attain and retain competitive advantage—and protect their IP. This is important to keep in mind because many in the IP community will try to tell you that the only intangibles of any value are IP assets. We strongly disagree, which is why we have taken so much time to explain all the elements of intangible capital.
We actually created a pretty big controversy when we drafted this content for our book. When we started out, we intended to define all structural knowledge as intellectual property. When we consulted colleagues in the business and legal communities on the draft, we got some strong support and some equally strong pushback. The conversation spilled over to Twitter and Mary’s blog which had a record number of comments on a post called, “What’s the right definition of intellectual property?” The message that we wanted to communicate is that all intangibles are important and legal protection is just one of the strategies to protect your intangibles. However, it became clear to us that insistence on this definition was going to distract a lot of people from the core messages of this book. So we backed down.
So our advice is to leave the term intellectual property to the lawyers. But do not leave the protection of you intangible capital to just a legal strategy. Come to understand and protect your intangible capital as a system. Remember the lesson of knowledge economics. The highest value knowledge is knowledge that has been operationalized, put to work. The way that this usually occurs is actually through the creation of processes.
[This post originally appeared at i-capitaladvisors.com.]