Intellectual property can be a crucial business tool, although not everyone thinks hard enough about protecting their big ideas. In 2001, plumber Brad McCarthy got stuck on a remote beach in Cape York in north Queensland and spent about 6 hours getting his car out with a hand winch. He knew there has to be a much better way. In reaction, he invented Maxtrax, a lightweight vehicle-recovery device for bogged off-roaders.

After designing the super-tough nylon product, he attended a Queensland Government business seminar, where the advisers stressed getting patent protection before his idea was publicised. “One of the primary things we did was talk to Inventhelp Invention Stories to find out how we could protect the concept,” says McCarthy, who launched Maxtrax in 2005. It is now purchased in about 30 countries worldwide. McCarthy has patents in key markets like Australia, Europe as well as the US, and the business also offers a trademark on the distinctive original “safety orange” hue it uses of its moulded product. Unlike McCarthy, however, many inventors and businesses with a good idea cruel their odds of success from day one.

Their big mistake? Ignoring patents or some other intellectual property protection before they spruik their idea to investors, people or even friends. It can become a costly error. Bradley Postma, principal at patent and trademark attorney firm Cullens, says small, and medium enterprises (SMEs), particularly, often neglect safeguarding their IP or think it will probably be too expensive. “The vast majority of protectable IP goes unprotected,” he says.

Europe can become a particular trap for exporters because, unlike various other major markets, it lacks a grace period allowing for public disclosure of an invention without affecting the validity of the subsequent patent application. That opens just how to have an idea or product to get copied. “In Australia and america you can do something about this, provided you’re in a one-year window – in Europe you can’t, it’s too late,” Postma says. “In that case, businesses have shot themselves within the foot; they’ve forfeited their rights and anyone can copy [their idea].” Postma observes that business people often think their idea is simply too very easy to warrant a patent. “However, if it’s successful and uncomplicated, it will probably be copied and you have to get advice.”

Unitary patents on way – Margot Fröhlinger is principal director of unitary patent, European and international legal affairs at the Munich-based European Patent Office (EPO), which oversees about 160,000 patent applications a year. She recently completed a road trip warning Australian businesses that poor patent and IP safeguards could derail their European market opportunities. Companies need to innovate – and protect their inventions. “You have to have the protection of your own IP and, specifically, Inventhelp Number in order to get a good return on the investment,” she says.

Many international businesses have baulked at exporting to Europe because of complex patent processes across multiple jurisdictions that can end in potentially high costs and marginal protection. However, the EPO is promoting a new unitary patent system that promises as a game changer. This will make it possible to get protection in up to 26 participating European Union member states with all the submission of a single request towards the EPO.

A November 2017 EPO study, Patents, Trade and FDI inside the European Union, suggests better harmonisation of Europe’s patent system provides the possibility to increase trade and foreign direct investment in high-tech sectors, delivering annual gains of €14.6 billion ($A22.8 billion) in trade and €1.8 billion (A$2.81 billion) in foreign direct investment.

Fröhlinger believes Australian businesses across all sectors have opportunities to expand to the European market, which boasts more than 500 million people, high gross domestic product and robust consumer demand. “It’s extremely important for Australian businesses to know that there exists a big change ahead in Europe. I’m not talking only about patents,” Fröhlinger says. “It’s very important with an integrated IP portfolio considering patents and trademarks and (covering) design. When they don’t have (IP) individuals-house they should attempt to get strategic business advice.”

The need for intangible assets – This call to action for Australian businesses may come as the worldwide Innovation Index 2017 reports on countries’ IP receipts being a percentage of total trade. Basically, the measure indicates the way a country is performing on the IP front. While Australia scores well in terms of inputs into research and development, the US (5.1 per cent), Japan (4.7 per cent) and Finland (2.9 per cent) easily outperform Australia (.3 %) on IP royalties.

Your message? As a general rule, Australian companies are not proficient at converting research into value and treat IP nearly as an administrative function. The exceptions are health tech leaders, such as medical device company Cochlear and sleep-disorder business ResMed, which understand the significance of intangible assets like brand and data use, and build their briaac around it.

In a knowledge-based economy, IP has turned into a crucial business tool and governing it is not just a matter of organising trademarks and Inventhelp George Foreman. Intangible assets are rapidly becoming more important than tangible assets and require appropriate consideration.

A review of Australia’s top listed companies, released by Glasshouse Advisory in September 2017, endorses such a sentiment. It reveals that 38 percent in the companies’ value (about A$550 billion) is not included on their balance sheets; this suggests that investors are operating without insights in to a significant proportion in the corporate asset base.

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