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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, Intellectual Property 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 what separates you from everyone else, especially in business.

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

Everyone has Intellectual Property.
We tend to think of only the famous names in invention or creativity as those who can rightfully lay claim to having ‘Intellectual Property’ because they are the geniuses whose intellect changed the very world around us.

No doubt you will recognise Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Marie Curie, Alexander Fleming, Grace Hopper (that’ll get you guessing) and Tim Berners-Lee.

In global terms, their inventions have made the most significant impact on human lives. They are most famous because their inventions or creativity affected the greatest number of people over the longest period of time. They literally changed the world in which we live. 

However, inventiveness or creativity that makes a positive impact on even a small group of people is as vital as any in terms of the relevance to Intellectual Property. For example, most people have experienced a so-called light bulb moment where an idea pops into their head about a new or different way of doing something that could make a positive impact on their life (or the lives of others). 

It may be finding a creative way to modify something that keeps breaking, or perhaps combining two devices into one (maybe cable-tying a strimmer to a lawnmower so you can trim the edges while you mow the lawn!). Or, it may be inventing something entirely new and original. Whatever it is, very few people set out to make money from their invention, despite the ubiquitous well-meaning friend or family member who will always be on hand to enthuse over the wealth-generating, life-changing properties your invention has. 

However, even if the idea has commercial potential, it may never see the light of day as a marketable product. Whether it does or not, the original idea (not the end product) is where the Intellectual Property lies – and that Intellectual Property will always belong to you.

Protecting your IP.
The context of this article is primarily how Intellectual Property relates to business. There are many other circumstances 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 the IP, particularly where it is 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 you starting a business to sell fruit and vegetables. However, if you’re a business development consultant, whose insight, acumen and vision are 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. At least to some degree.

The idea doesn’t have to be completely original.
Business owners are typically creative thinkers. From office cleaners to airlines to car manufacturers to cordwainers (shoemakers to you and me); there may be striking similarities between competitor products and services, but each will have found a way to do what they do in a unique way. It’s the creativity of the owner/s and nuances they identify which create opportunity. These differences can sometimes change the world. 

You’re only reading this because, whilst working at CERN, the physics laboratory in Switzerland, Tim Berners-Lee had a vision. He identified an opportunity to develop a system that would piggy-back an existing network of connected computers to enable information to be shared electronically. Originally an internal project, this rapidly expanded to become, what we now know as, the worldwide web.

James Dyson invented the ‘Ballbarrow’ in 1974. He took an existing product; the wheelbarrow and identified the apparent weakness of the single, thin wheel that made the wheelbarrow challenging to manoeuvre and sunk into soft ground. He replaced the wheel with a ball and turned an existing, everyday item into a new and successful product.

Dyson later followed a similar path with the vacuum cleaner. He identifying its apparent weakness of the dust collection bag becoming clogged and went on to invent 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 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 invent it first. A number of other creative types were said to be working on similar projects, thereby potentially contributing to the concept around the same time. Thomas Edison was, however, 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 wide 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 that competes directly with you?

Well, not exactly. Firstly, it’s important to understand what’s meant by ‘giving away’ in the context of 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 were the motivation behind you started the business in the first place.

It doesn’t matter if your business is making cakes or writing share-dealing software for financial institutions, you will still have your individual 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.

It doesn’t really matter what it is 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 fundamental rule that must be observed. It’s a fine line between being seen to be different and unique, and actually revealing the secrets. The golden rule is, simply, 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. However, the combination, volumes and processes that combine to make Heinz tomato sauce what it is are among the world’s most closely guarded secrets. 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 Heinz tomato sauce ingredients versus the recipe to create it.
  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 particular 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 widespread practice for businesses to solicit engagement with freebie downloads, such as:

    “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 practice 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 to think long and hard about what makes you and your business unique.

What is the essence of the service or product you provide that makes your business different? 

Think about why your customers 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 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.

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