The Overuse of ‘Intellectual Property’ Print E-mail
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Written by Peter Bigelow   
Thursday, 28 July 2011 15:46

Why the term has morphed and what “true” IP should be.

Intellectual property is an intriguing phrase if for no other reason than it is overused and has morphed into conflicting meanings.

Way back when I started my career, I was involved in product development at a connector company. At the time, the universally accepted (and narrow) definition of intellectual property included raw R&D, patents and trademarks. Great effort was made to patent everything you could and throw a trademark on anything you could not. Once the idea or concept was protected (read: made into IP via patent or trademark), then much of the data was shared openly in an effort to commercialize the product and maximize its profitability.

Who would recognize that meaning today? What’s new is the core definition of what it encompasses; the attitude or swagger some companies wrap around the importance of their IP; and finally, the mystique of even having IP.

The widely accepted definition of IP is today considered by most companies to cover just about everything they do – from how they harness MIS systems to shop floor processes to how they respond to and invoice customers – and, oh yeah, what products and/or services they develop, patent or market. Over the past 15 to 20 years, the number of NDAs my company signs has grown geometrically. Most are so broad as to conceivably cover not just true technology development, but everything, including the color of a new product brochure. Many others come from companies that do minimal true R&D or are in the business of bringing existing product to market at lower cost.

With the broadening of the definition, my guess is most companies may actually end up in a more compromised position, falsely believing their IP is new, when in fact, it may not be. I experienced this about 25 years ago while working for a manufacturer of switches, valves and timers. I made a sales call to a major gas grill company – the summer barbeque kind. To my surprise, I was summoned into a large conference room with about 30 of their engineers, marketers and legal staff. The president of the company chewed me up one side and down the other for breach of a signed NDA between our two companies. The chief counsel explained the legal ramifications that would follow. At the heart of the matter was their “concept” of an automatic gas shutoff valve. Our company, upon hearing this, sent them a sample product that met their overall requirements. This customer in turn assumed we had copied their IP. When I showed them our then 10-year-old catalog with a full line of automatic gas turnoff valves and explained that our company had invented the product for the US Army during World War II, they calmed down. In their zeal to go to market, they assumed they’d reinvented the proverbial wheel!

This is the swagger some companies associate with their IP. The worst are military prime contractors. At every meeting I have ever attended, tough-as-nails management pounds their chests reminding everyone they build “mission-critical” product where “lives are at risk” if anything goes wrong. “Error is not an option.” Could they really believe their industry is unique? More lives are lost on America’s highways every month than in battle each year – globally. We could easily throw the medical industry in the mix as well. If only the military primes were as quick to make improvements to their IP, so as to ruggedize or reduce costs on existing technology platforms like the auto or medical industries.

A loose definition combined with a dash of attitude has helped create the mystique that accompanies intellectual property. As various global organizations and governments push for greater protection of it, the more everyone expands their definition or misuses the term, and the more difficult it becomes to protect true IP. It is just not economically feasible to protect everything a company does in the normal course of business. Equally, for those who put in place costly hierarchies that give the appearance of protecting intellectual property, the resources spent may be far in excess of any real value their real IP has. In short, the value of the mystique may not be worth the cost to protect it.

Possibly all parties should consider revisiting the old, narrow, purist definition. Protect your R&D with a vengeance. Make sure anyone you might share that R&D with has the ability (systems, commitment and, most of all, people) to honor and protect it. If you have a patent or trademark, you go after anyone, anywhere who infringes on that legal document. But when you send basic CAD data for a “me-too” product to a supplier, be realistic and know that it is what it is: not R&D, not a patent, not even patent-pending, but just a piece of the many designs to be fabricated and components ordered and needed to make a product function.
Intellectual property should not include generic product platforms, nor should it encompass everything, especially a marketing brochure associated with a hot new product. IP should be the true core R&D – the patentable design and/or concept – that truly has value. If companies become more realistic about IP, it will be easier to cost-effectively and adequately protect it. Equally, reasonably differentiating what is real IP from what is not will enable greater collaboration with valued suppliers, leading to design improvement and cost-reduction, especially on non-critical design and technology, while making it clearer and therefore easier for critical patent or trademark protection.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . His column appears monthly.

Last Updated on Friday, 29 July 2011 12:01


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