What Willy Wonka can teach us about the importance of IP

Willy Wonka once said “Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple”.  Although that adds up to 105%, Roald Dahl hints in this quote that clearly a lot of hard work goes into inventing and innovation.  In fact, Roald Dahl was named a co-inventor on a cerebral shunt after his son, Theo, developed hydrocephalus after being struck by a car.  Whilst Roald Dahl and Stanley Wade did not intend to make any money from their innovation, they still applied for a patent in the UK and the US on the cerebral shunt, which highlights that they thought their new technology was worth protecting, or, at least, being offered for use in the public domain.

There are different types of Intellectual Property (IP) available to creative people – whether that be copyright for a book about a whacky gentleman in a chocolate factory, a design application for the shape and configuration of a new vacuum cleaner, a trade mark for a business offering a bar of chocolate or a patent for a cerebral shunt.  But why are they so important?

It is often the case, when I am visiting start-ups - at inception - that they know little about IP and how they are able to gain protection for their novel and innovative ideas.  However, if the small businesses decide to ignore IP rights at this point, they could be landing themselves in hot water if, for example, a competitor imitates their idea and starts selling it off as their own, or, alternatively, they infringe on a third party’s IP rights and do not find out until they have put their product to the market.  In the first scenario that would, obviously, lead to loss in sales if the competitor’s product is remarkably similar but cheaper, or is substantially better than the original.  In the latter scenario, the small business may have just managed to manufacture and sell their product at a great scale, only to learn that somebody else has IP protection.  Their options here are limited and would most likely result in the stopping of sales of that product unless they go to the expense of court proceedings.  Therefore, it is important that small businesses develop an understanding of IP at the very beginning.

It is also often the case that small businesses think that if they have a patent, they will automatically make millions of pounds from that patent.  This is not the case.  What IP provides is the ability for a business to protect itself from loss of earnings due to others copying or imitating their concepts.  Without IP, the owner of the business, or the individual inventors, would be rather limited in what relief they would get if someone imitated or copied their products.

A patent, for example, is a form of right granted by a government to an inventor, or owner, giving the inventor, or owner, the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering to sell, and importing an invention for a period of time – usually 20 years.  Therefore, the business owner, or individual inventor is given some comfort in knowing that their eventual patent for a certain product would protect them from others infringing this particular right in that period of time.  Patents are therefore a monopoly right that protect the owner, or inventor, for a limited period of time, but also act as a force for growing innovation by publicly disclosing inventions.

For small businesses, it may also be important to enter the market with a - as Roald Dahl would probably say - “whizzpop”.  The small business may find it necessary to enter the market ensuring that they distinguish their goods and services from another competitor.  This is where trade marks would play an important role.  They can be a valuable marketing tool, and registering your ‘mark’ would protect you from others using it for the same class of goods or services.  It is worth noting that Roald Dahl Nominee Limited – a management company run by the organisations for whom the author and his legacy are central to their work – have successfully registered the trade mark “ROALD DAHL” and its subsequent logo.

Another aspect of IP that is important is the design right and registered design right.  Say, for example, the small business is developing a burger bun that could also accommodate a hot dog, and result in the hamdog, the shape and configuration of that bun would play an important role in the manufacture and sales of that bun.  The shape and configuration of that bun could be protected by IP in the form of a design.  There are significant differences between the design right and registered design right.  Design right is an automatic protection for the 3D shape of a design.  A design right allows you to stop others directly copying the shape and configuration of that article.  A stronger form of protection would be available in a registered design right.  This protection gives you exclusive rights in a design, allowing you to stop people from exploiting a product to which your design is applied.

As mentioned earlier, all of these forms of protections should be considered by small businesses at the very beginning to ensure that they are protecting themselves for the future growth of the business.  It is also vital to keep the details of any designs or potential patents confidential before applications for any IP have been made.  It is also important to appreciate that all of these forms of IP are territorial, so they only offer protection in the countries in which they have been filed, and eventually obtained.

IP can be one of your most important assets in your growing business and, therefore, it is vital that you ensure that it is suitably protected.  Whilst you could apply for patents, trade marks and designs at the UK Intellectual Property Office yourself, we would suggest consulting a Patent and/or Trademark Attorney who can advise on your ‘snozzberries’, ‘wangdoodles’, ‘grobblesquirts’ or any other ideas that you think are worth protecting.