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Intellectual property can be a crucial business tool, however, 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 better way. In response, he invented Invention Patent, a lightweight vehicle-recovery device for bogged off-roaders.

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

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

Europe can be a particular trap for exporters because, unlike various other major markets, it lacks a grace period permitting public disclosure of your invention without affecting the validity of the subsequent patent application. That opens the way for the idea or product to become copied. “In Australia and america that can be done something regarding it, provided you’re in a one-year window – in Europe you can’t, it’s too far gone,” Postma says. “In that case, businesses have shot themselves in the foot; they’ve forfeited their rights and anybody can copy [their idea].” Postma observes that business people often think their idea is too simple to warrant a patent. “However, if it’s successful and straightforward, it will be copied and you need 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 companies that poor patent and IP safeguards could derail their European market opportunities. Companies must innovate – and protect their inventions. “You need the protection of the IP and, particularly, patent protection in order to get an excellent return on your own investment,” she says.

Many international businesses have baulked at exporting to Europe as a result of Inventhelp New Inventions processes across multiple jurisdictions that will end in potentially high costs and marginal protection. However, the EPO is promoting a brand new unitary patent system that promises to be a game changer. This will make it possible to get protection in as much as 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 chances to expand in to the European market, which boasts greater than 500 million people, high gross domestic product and powerful consumer demand. “It’s very important for Australian businesses to understand that you will find a big change ahead in Europe. I’m not talking just about patents,” Fröhlinger says. “It’s very important to have an integrated IP portfolio considering patents and trademarks and (covering) design. If they don’t have (IP) individuals-house they need to attempt to get strategic business advice.”

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

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

In a knowledge-based economy, How Do I Patent An Idea has turned into a crucial business tool and governing it has stopped being just a matter of organising trademarks and patents. Intangible assets are rapidly increasingly important than tangible assets and require appropriate consideration.

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

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