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IP Protection Issues for Innovators & Product Managers

4 years 7 months ago

While “innovation” is often used in unclear ways, it fundamentally means doing or making something new. A successful innovation provides value to customers and a return on investment to its creators. The investment and value can be enhanced through intellectual property protection. IP takes many forms, including utility patents, design patents, trade secrets, copyrights, and trademarks.

Innovators and product managers need to know the basics of what IP is and when it should be considered in the development lifecycle. Thankfully, the basics are easily understood when explained by an expert teacher, and I found just such a person to talk with, patent attorney Dan BreanDan is an experienced patent litigator and prosecutor, primarily working with mechanical, electrical, and software technologies. He also teaches at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

What is the Purpose of Intellectual Property?

IP is something that is intangible. You can’t see, feel, touch, or smell it. As a legal concept, IP rights can make those intangible ideas in some sense ownable.  It provides specific forms of limits over who can use the idea or invention. When considering IP rights for an invention, prior art issues must be researched. This refers to the universe of public knowledge before the date your patent application is filed. Anything that happened before (prior) that contributed to the technology field (art) is considered prior art. Only ideas that are new and inventive (not obvious) can be rewarded patents.

Consequently, being the first to file an invention is important, but that does not mean as soon as the idea is created. While IP protection issues should be considered in each of the traditional product development processes of conceiving, plan, develop, qualify, and launch, you want to make reasoned trade-offs. You want to get patent protection filed early for viable product concepts, but you can’t file before details of the invention are known.

What are the Primary Forms of IP Protection?

I admit this is where my eyes typically start to glaze over as different types of patents, trademarks and more are discussed. This time was different, and Dan’s concise explanations were helpful. The five primary forms of IP protection include:

  1. Utility patents: are most common and cover the utilitarian value of an invention – something that performs a useful process.
  2. Design patents: cover the ornamental appearance of an object or user interface – the aesthetic aspects of a design. Many inventions fall under utility patent and design patent protection.
  3. Trade secrets: is anything that is kept confidential and has a commercial advantage to it. A famous example is a formula for Coca-Cola’s Coke beverage.
  4. Trademarks: protect brand names or logos or other characteristics that specify a brand.
  5. Copyright: protection for artistic works.

When considering patents, realize that if you file a utility patent today it will probably be 2 to 3 years before the patent office even reviews it because of their backlog. Another year or two may be required to respond to the patent office questions. Expect about four years before the utility patent is awarded.  Utility patents provide protection for 20 years. Design patents are quicker, typically issued in 12 to 18 months, and provide protection for 15 years.


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