Intellectual Property Rights: What start-ups must know before revealing ideas (I)


Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) and their related benefits (protection against unlawful use of one’s innovation, sale of one’s IP for extra income, safeguarding a company’s reputation for its customers etc.) are not usually part of the strategies considered by many start-ups in Ghana. This is largely due to the lack of knowledge on IPRs and how to exploit them for the benefit of their dream businesses. Small and Medium Scale businesses or Start-ups must not wait to grow big before thinking about strategies to safeguard their ideas and innovations which become what defines their company, hence their intellectual property.

In today’s business world, intangible assets like Continuous Innovations, Trust and Reputation, Consistent Adherence to Safety and Quality Standards, as well as customer data form part of your intellectual property and are jewels that propel business success. These assets usually differentiate one start-up business from another and give it a competitive edge that eventually drives rate of revenue inflows. On the other hand, the inability or decision not to profile your IPs and potential components of your company, which are likely to be of relevance in terms of IP, as well as subsequent strategies toward their assertion as an intellectual asset can cause your business to flop. Startups must know that IPRs as assets have commercial values.

A historical perspective on why start-ups must consider their IP assets from the beginning

 One of the key events that led to the development of systems to protect IPRs took place in Austria in 1873 – when the then-government of the Empire of Austria-Hungary invited other countries for an exhibition of inventions to be held in Vienna. Many foreign visitors were however reluctant to exhibit their inventions, from the view that there were inadequate structures to legally protect their inventions when they are exhibited. These triggered developments leading to the formation of various conventions since 1884 which laid the foundation for structures guiding various IPR systems today.

Many young people or start-ups are attending numerous platforms that are being created all over the country by various interest groups – including Radio and TV stations, government agencies and the international communities – in the form of fairs and trade shows, where they display, pitch ideas and/or innovative products (food and non-food) in a quest to solicit funding or make sales.

These platforms in themselves are not bad in any sense. However, local innovations and ingenuity are widely displayed without paying attention to which information should be let out and what should be kept close to the chest. Often, you hear and see creators and inventors giving out all the nitty-gritty of their inventions philanthropically to the public or a prospective buyer. They tell them What they used; How they used it; and everything about even Where to get their active ingredients with careless abandon!

A quick scan of the web shows several of such innovations which have not been protected whatsoever, and yet have been put out there for public consumption. Many of these stories, especially from students in tertiary institutions, are scattered across the media – including many Agritech innovations for both technologies and value additions to food products. The lack of IP knowledge is very alarming, since the phenomenon is not only among young people but even university lecturers who are assumed to know better.

Many inventions have gone down the drain, generally because people who are more established see the potential for the business’s success and take away what is special (the value proposition component) about these ideas, give it new name and then exploit it to the disadvantage of the original owners. Let’s take a look at the few cases I surveyed online.

Case I: KNUST students develop gas leakage detector that operates via SMS alert

Look at how the invention has been vividly described online…

The gadget is equipped with a sensor that detects gas concentration and triggers a buzzer to alert neighbours. It has a GPS and GSM with the capacity to contain, at least, three phone numbers. These automatically send messages whenever there is a gas leakage. “The GPS and GSM model will send a message that there’s gas leakage. And you can add fire service numbers to it, which is important.”

Courage is an international IP consultant and currently with the Intellectual Property Office of Ghana.

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