Most organizations are innovative. They try to do things differently from their competition. Have something in them that is core to their DNA and different from others in the same business. But, how you express that to the world. A few years back, I read marketing collateral of two leading giants of the domain; call them A and B. A was relatively new in business and claimed B is old and not nimble as they were and A was more innovative. B had put up a marketing campaign around the same time showing a portfolio of patents they carried to showdown A in terms of their innovation capabilities. Who was telling the truth? Why is it so important for such high-profile organizations to claim one-upmanship on patent numbers?
Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)
The physical property we all understand. Some are immovable ones like land, building, machine, etc., or movable goods that we can take along with us. What about human thoughts and actions? Is there a property value associated with human actions? Intellectual properties are such items. They are intangible and resulting from human endeavors and ingenuity, they add certain characteristics to the goods or services that create differentiating value. Hence, they are important to be identified as property. These properties are associated with the idea, the expression, or the thoughts around the property and not the physical goods. Most people start thinking of patents as the only IPRs. That’s not true. IPRs are of many kinds; here are some. Each has its value in gold if you know how to exploit them right.
- Patents — associated with an idea that is novel having business value
- Copyrights — associated with expressions. Write-ups and literary works and expressions, filmography, etc can be the subject matter of copyrights. Computer source code and databases are protected under copyrights.
- Trademarks — Associate a source or origin to a work. Used extensively for branding.
- Industrial Designs — Protects the 2-D and 3-D expression of the design which can be distinguished by eyes only; the functional value of the design is not considered at all.
There are a few others that I leave out from the discussion here. Why is it important for a business owner to know these distinctions?
An upcoming FMCG stalwart in a limited audience communication showed that their innovation has been breached by competition who has used a similar contraption as the original in delivering similar benefits. When we asked him if he had protected his innovation in some ways, he was confident that he had and he had filed a design patent. Industrial design protection is not a patent. An industrial design is just based on visual appeal, changing it somehow to meet a functional need cannot be defended under design protection. I am not sure if he had understood the difference.
As a PM, you have the knowledge of any new or novelty that is coming up from your organization. You have the knowledge of what value the innovation is adding to your organization. Use that knowledge and apply it to the relevant IPR due to such ingenuity. While patents are well covered, is your product brand name a registered trademark? There is definite value in having trademark protection for your company logo, product names, marketecture, etc. More so in the initial periods of your business. Why so? Read about infringement vs passing off in the context of trademarks.
Respecting Other’s IPR
Once in private communication with an engineer, I asked him how he managed to come up with the witty solution. He quite innocently told me he went to a site that had a plethora of interesting ideas displayed and he found the site through Google. And what I saw shocked me. He had actually pulled out a concept from a patent application from USPTO. A blatant infringement!!! Here is an engineer who had no clue of what patents are. Any infringement of a patent or any IPR is a serious crime. So much so organizations that care, develop specific technologies in clean rooms, to convince the world that their technology development has not been influenced by any code or technology of another company or research organization.
Many people believe, open source is all open and I can use the code as much as I like and wherever I feel like. People having this belief must look at the case involving 40 odd lines of disputed code between Oracle vs Google over the Java programming language. Litigation is estimated in billions of USD. Every software is licensed and not purchased. Even every open-source code is associated with a license.
As a PM:
- Do you have a list of open-source licenses used for every of your software products?
- Are you aware that creating derivative work from a GNU Public License (GPL) licensed sources may force you to open source your derivative work?
- Do you realize, mere parsing of the outputs of software can be considered derivative work if the license states so? Read the NMAP license.
- Products have special purpose licenses with different licenses for different purposes. Research and personal use can be carried out under open source while commercial licensing may not be open source. Stanford CoreNLP for example. Are you having such usage in your organization?
- The Creative Commons license used for much literary work or copyrightable works has levels of usage restrictions. Some even do not permit commercial use. Creative commons even applies to public databases which you may have used as a data source. Data can be so scarce that there may be only a handful of labeled data sources in every domain. Are you aware this may apply to data you have downloaded from Kaggle?
Life is not that scary with open source. But every open-source code and license must be analyzed for license compliance before they are used. Some open-source licenses are very much commercial usage-friendly. What are those? Let’s keep it an open topic for the discussions.