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When And Why It’s Good To Give Away Your Intellectual Property

When and why it’s good to give away your Intellectual Property

According to Wikipedia’s definition of Intellectual Property, it is;

…a category of property that includes intangible creations of the human intellect…”.  It goes on to say “The most well-known types [of Intellectual Property] are copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets.”

Fundamentally this means it’s what you know. It’s your tacit understanding of the way only you know how to do something. It’s your ideas, your unique creativity and it’s what separates you from everyone else, especially in business.

We tend to think of only the famous big names in invention or creativity, such as Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Marie Curie, Alexander Fleming, Grace Hopper (that’ll get you guessing), Tim Berners-Lee, and so on, as the ones who can rightfully lay claim to having ‘Intellectual Property’ because they are the geniuses whose intellect changed the very world around us.

In global terms then yes, these guys made the biggest impact (and are therefore the most famous) because their inventions or creativity affected the greatest number of people for the longest amount of time. They literally changed the world. However, a level of inventiveness or creativity that makes a positive impact on even a small group of people is as important as any in terms of the relevance of Intellectual Property.

Oxford University describes Intellectual Property more simply, as; “…ideas, information and knowledge” which feels much more like something we can all relate to.

Most people have experienced a so-called light bulb moment where an idea suddenly comes to them about a new or different way of doing something that could make a positive impact on their life (or the lives of others). It could be anything from finding a creative way to fix something that’s broken, to combining two different objects to make one new one (I don’t know, maybe cable-tying a strimmer to a lawnmower so you can trim the edges while you mow the lawn!), to inventing something entirely new and original.

Even if the idea has commercial potential it may never see the light of day and be developed into a tangible product or process, but this makes no difference the status of the original idea being Intellectual Property. It’s the result of a thought process (or series of) which came from you and, therefore, belongs only to you.

The context of this article is how Intellectual Property relates to business as there are many other situations in which IP exists but which may not be vulnerable to commercial exploitation and it’s that which can be of greatest concern. Typically, business owners are incredibly protective over their IP because it may have been the basis of the business they created. If you’re a greengrocer it’s highly unlikely that your IP will have had any bearing on your starting a business to sell fruit and vegetables. However, if you’re a business development consultant whose insight, acumen and vision are absolutely key to building a business around advising clients on the growth of their business, then yes, IP exists and you’d be right to be protective over it. To a degree.

It doesn’t have to be the original idea
Business owners are typically creative thinkers by virtue of the fact that they have developed an original idea into a business that sells products or services from which they make a living. From office cleaners to airlines to car manufacturers to shoe makers, there may be striking similarities between competitors but each will have found a way to do what they do in a different way to each other, precisely because of the creativity of the owner/s and nuances they identify which create opportunity. These differences can sometimes change the world. In fact, you’re only reading this because, whilst working at CERN, the physics laboratory in Switzerland, Tim Berners-Lee began to realise there was an opportunity to develop a system on top of an existing network of connected computers that would enable information to be shared. Originally an internal project, this rapidly expanded to become the world wide web.

James Dyson invented the ‘Ballbarrow’ in 1974. He took an existing product; the wheelbarrow, and identified the obvious weakness of the single, thin wheel that made the wheelbarrow difficult to manoeuvre and would sink into soft ground. He replaced the wheel with a ball and developed the original idea into a successful product. Later, he followed a similar path with the vacuum cleaner, identifying an obvious weakness of the dust collection bag inevitably becoming clogged, and invented the world’s first bag-less vacuum cleaner.

Granted, he’s a smart guy our My Dyson, but he didn’t create something from nothing, in the same way Thomas Edison invented the light bulb – something which genuinely didn’t exist previously (ok, for the pedantic readers; whilst Edison was credited with inventing the light bulb, he didn’t necessarily and individually invent it first, as a number of other creative types were apparently working on similar projects, thereby potentially contributing to the concept around the same time. Thomas Edison was smart enough to patent his idea first!). Instead, James Dyson’s inventions were typically borne out of observation and frustration of products that existed but were poorly designed or executed, yet were already fully accepted by the masses. He always saw products that could, in his opinion, benefit from significant improvements in design and functionality. The Dyson empire generates revenue of some £3billion – £4billion per year from a range of products, all of which have received the Dyson pondering/creativity treatment so it’s not a bad route to take!

Giving away your IP
On the basis that your ideas (your Intellectual property) could, potentially, have a positive global impact and/or transform your financial position to-boot, why would you want to give this magical ‘IP’ stuff away? Surely, somebody will simply steal it and start a business in direct competition with you?

Well, not exactly. Firstly, it’s important to understand what’s meant by ‘giving away‘ your Intellectual Property.

This is not about revealing the innermost secrets of an invention that has changed the world and/or has already turned someone into a gazillionaire; we’re talking about the unique thought processes and ideas that helped create your business in the first place, regardless of its size, and continued to help it develop and become commercially successful.

It doesn’t matter if your business is making cakes or writing share-dealing software for financial institutions, you will still have your own thought processes, ideas, inventiveness and creative solutions on the best way to do something, based on your experience and expertise.

If your business is valeting cars then giving away your Intellectual Property might be telling people about the secret formula and technique you use to remove baked-on bird poo from a car’s bodywork in order to restore the original colour and shine. If your business is wedding cakes, giving away your IP could be explaining how you create glossy icing by going through specific steps a unique process. If you’re a financial business consultant, giving away your IP might be demonstrating how your interpretation of the tax and investment laws means securing the best returns in a given set of circumstances.

In fact, it doesn’t matter what it is specifically, it’s just all the ‘stuff’ only you know; your insight and understanding that makes your business what it is and unique.

There is no risk
Giving away this information does not expose your business to being copied or ripped-off by a competitor. It actually has the reverse effect as it demonstrates your knowledge and uniqueness. It quickly helps people see you as an expert in the field.

However, there is a very important rule that must be observed. It’s a fine line between being seen to be different and unique, and actually revealing the secrets. This important and significant rule; the golden rule, if you will, is that you always tell people WHAT to do, not HOW to do it (or what you do, not how you do it).

Think of the recipe for Heinz tomato sauce. They make no secret of what’s in their tomato sauce; the ingredients are listed on the bottle as this is a legal requirement, but the combination, volumes and processes that combine to make Heinz tomato sauce what it is, are among the closest guarded secrets in the world. Letting that information out of the bag would probably cause the company to collapse, eventually, and that’s precisely why ‘IP’ is protected by law. In fact, there’s a whole sector of law that deals with protecting IP alone because it can be so valuable and so incredibly complex.

Giving away [some of] your IP feels like putting your head above the parapet and waiting to be shot at. It’s what makes you stand out from the crowd when everyone else is too scared to give away anything at all for fear of someone stealing what makes their business unique. Giving away selected aspects of your IP will definitely expose you but in a really good way. Others might wonder why you’re putting yourself in such a vulnerable position when, in reality, you are generating respect, confidence and influence.

The rules for giving away your Intellectual property are really very simple:

  1. Start by understanding and accepting that it’s really good to give away some, not all, of your IP.
    Carefully select what you can give away that others, including (yes, including) your competitors, will see great value in. There’s no point whatsoever giving away valueless IP as people will see straight through that as fake information or click-bait. Just keep in mind the ingredients of Heinz tomato sauce versus the recipe.
  2. Understand that you can give away what you do but not how you do it.
    Read that again, it’s vitally important to understand the difference and figure out how to implement it.
  3. Give it away, paying special attention to the word ‘give’.
    This means asking for, and receiving, nothing whatsoever in return. Don’t give with one hand and take with the other. Just give. It will surprise some people and they will feel they are gaining something of great value from you.
  4. Do not use the act of giving IP away as a vehicle to sell your services.
    It’s extremely common practice for businesses to promote “Here’s my FREE top-ten tips for how to get the very best from your online print service” (that’s them giving away some of their IP) “…and if you need help with your stationery I run a graphic design service... (they can’t resist the temptation to sell, sell, sell). This is not what giving IP away is about. By giving away your IP you will become known for what you do. It’s a longer-term process and is the beginning of your sales pipeline which naturally leads to more business.

Next steps
Take some time out to think long and hard about what makes you and/or your business unique. What is the essence of the service or product you provide that makes your business different? Think about why your customers really buy from you (you may find this article makes an interesting read: Are you selling what your customers are buying?). Think about what you’re known for. What is it that you do, or what knowledge do you have that nobody else can replicate, either at all or in the same way that you do do it?

Finding answers to these questions will require you to really dig-in and think hard about your uniqueness and the essence of your business, as these are questions not very often even considered by business owners. However, once you crack how and why your offering is so unique, you’ll understand what your IP is.

Once you’re clear on what’s unique about your business, think about a way that works for you to share certain aspects of it; the elements you might otherwise consider to be your secrets. You may choose to write about them in a blog or on social media. You may choose to share them verbally or visually at your local networking meeting, or perhaps only ever face-to-face with individual clients. Whatever works for you is absolutely fine.

Remember, you can talk freely about your uniqueness and what makes you different, as long as you also remember it’s about the ingredients, not the recipe.


Original, short version published on the Key Person of Influence website

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