A rocky road to market

Designers must invest in intellectual property if they want to retain control of their ideas and see them through to production

Last month’s report by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts claims that design faces even greater challenges in terms of its growth than other creative industries because of the slowdown in innovation and subsequent translation of concepts into commercial products. One of the barriers to innovation may be the complexity of intellectual property, which is under-utilised by designers in comparison with musical or literary counterparts.

Industry players like sustainable and inclusive design consultancy Sprout Design and product design engineering consultancy Element 06 have voiced the opinion that while innovation platforms like the Design Business Association’s 24 Hour Inclusive Design Challenge encourage thought leadership and marketing activity, the commercialisation stage, including the IP process, does not come under its remit.

But how can designers capitalise on IP to ensure their concepts are taken to market? Do designers really have the time and money to manage a lengthy, costly and complex IP process? The financial value of IP, the negotiation of fees, royalties and licensing, as well as the affordability of legal services together pose a creative conundrum that can result in an idea going no further than the concept stage.

Brian McGuigan, director of Element 06 and sister company Lightweight Medical, explains that these groups, which specialise in the development and commercialisation of products and business system concepts, work on a case-by-case basis using licensing and royalty models. According to McGuigan, it is necessary to have the IP resources to deal with analysing and drafting patents, negotiating licensing deals and deciphering legal jargon.

‘On the team, we have one person who specialises in IP. At least four of us can perform detailed analyses of patents and everyone is trained in patent searches,’ he says.

McGuigan is aware that the global market is becoming ever more competitive. ‘Licensing IP is one of the strongest ways for us in the UK to retain design value,’ he adds.

According to Austen Miller, senior partner of product design consultancy 3Form and chairman of its manufacturing division Iconic, IP is a valuable asset in today’s current trading climate. It is, however, essentially useless, he says, unless the right connections with manufacturing and technology are made.

‘If all you’ve got is IP, then you’re going to be bamboozled by the big boys over patent fees and design rights. That’s why we offer IP implementation. If you can give the design buyer a product, which can go straight to market, rather than an idea that is likely to become a one-off, high-risk product, they’re more likely to go for it. Design buyers always look for lower risk,’ says Miller.

Trade organisations like British Design Innovation also express concern over the future of the traditional business model of fees in exchange for design rights. According to BDI chief executive Maxine Horn, the threat from the burgeoning design and manufacturing industries of China and India will undercut the UK, unless IP is capitalised on and traded in the correct manner.

As a result, BDI has developed Innovation Bank, an IP trading portal that provides guidance and a framework for those playing a role in the design and commercialisation process – from strategic designers to entrepreneurs and IP legal practitioners, as well as manufacturers.

‘Very often, you find that an idea relies on the IP of another company or individual and it’s this that stops it from reaching the market. Innovation Bank, we hope, will play a role in overcoming these sorts of obstacles,’ says Horn.

According to campaign and lobby group Anti Copying in Design, the UK lags far behind other countries in realising the importance of IP and design rights. Acid chief executive Dids MacDonald points out that it is not just about pursuing legal action.

She says the UK has yet to get to grips with the value of design services and feels it is up to design management to communicate the value of original ideas and maintain professional integrity from pitch processes through to design briefs.

‘The whole idea of Acid is to educate designers on their rights and raise awareness for creatives. There are standards set in industry to create a level playing field between design and manufacturing,’ says MacDonald.

• The World Intellectual Property Organisation promotes World Intellectual Property Day on 26 April each year
• Only 3% of UK designers receive royalties from IP rights, according to the Design Council report The Business of Design: Design Industry Research 2005
• Patents protect inventions, mechanical processes or devices. They must be applied for in a particular territory or country and last for up to 20 years
• Copyright protects the rights of the individual against unlawful reproduction and exploitation of literary and artistic work. It lasts for up to 70 years
• Unregistered design right lasts for ten years and protects the make-up and form of an object
• Registered design right provides further protection for the appearance of a product or part of a product. It also extends to desktop icons and graphical user interfaces
• Trademarks are words, logos, graphic or distinctive features that distinguish the goods or services of one business from those of another

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