IP awareness programmes for employees
January 2016 | SPECIAL REPORT: INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
Financier Worldwide Magazine
Why are IP awareness programmes important? In many cases, IP is the most valuable asset of the company. It is therefore imperative that the company’s employees should understand what IP is and how and why it should be protected and enforced. In some cases, that IP might consist of technology or software, as it does with tech companies like Apple and Google. In other cases, it might consist of pharmaceutical formulations, as it does with drugs companies like Pfizer. In many cases, it may consist primarily of brand names and logos, as it does with large FMCG companies like Procter & Gamble. Not to mention Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller, which have recently elected to throw all of their valuable brand names into one very large pot. Incidentally, for companies like Apple and Google, their brand names are every bit as important and valuable as their technology.
At the very least, employees should have a basic understanding of IP. They should know that it is patent law that protects technology and innovation, that it is design law that protects product design, and that it is trademark law that protects the brand names, logos, slogans and colour combinations that companies use to distinguish their products from those of competitors. They should also understand that it is copyright law that protects so much of the ancillary IP, such as the company’s advertising material, the material that appears in the company’s brochures, and the material that appears on the company’s website. In some cases, copyright even protects the company’s products, as it does in the case of film or record companies.
Ideally, however, employees should have more than just a basic understanding of IP. It is far better if they are able to appreciate some of the implications of IP rights, and understand that they need to consider IP in much of what they do for their company on a daily basis. When it comes to launching new products, there are obviously patent infringement issues that need to be considered. New product launches can, of course, also lead to issues of trademark infringement, as indeed can the mere introduction of a sub-brand, or even a new advertising or branding campaign, or packaging for an established brand. Employees should know that the internet has not abolished copyright, and that materials that they find on the internet cannot always be used without authorisation.
Employees should be every bit as aware of possible infringements of their company’s own IP. Does the competitor’s product seem a little too similar to their own company’s product? Does the competitor’s branding look a little too familiar; is it likely to confuse the public? Obviously most employees will not have detailed knowledge of exactly what IP protection their company has – not to mention the specialist knowledge to determine whether or not there has been an infringement. They should, however, at least know who they should go to in the company with their queries and concerns.
There is so much more that employees should know. Employees should understand that the company’s brand is at the very heart of its business, often its single most valuable asset. They should also understand that good brands are all about consistency – consistent product and consistent service. They should understand just how easily a brand can be harmed through employee behaviour – by failing to deal with the customer quickly, by failing to treat the customer with respect, by taking too long to answer the telephone. IP awareness is therefore required at all levels, even by those on the shop floor and those who answer the company’s telephones.
Employees should understand just what the company’s policy is on inventions or innovations created by employees. Generally, inventions or innovations created by employees in the course and scope of their employment will belong to the company. But just what does that encompass, and in what circumstances are employees obliged to disclose to the company what they have developed? Are there any incentive schemes in place which encourage employees to be innovative?
Employees need to understand that whenever the company briefs third parties to create IP for the company there are IP implications. This may relate to technology, software, written materials, or branding and advertising materials. Who will own the IP in the material created by the third party? The assumption may well be that the company will own it. It is, after all, paying for it. Does that happen automatically, or must the contract specify this? If you are wondering whether these are scare tactics, consider this – there have been high-profile UK court cases where branding companies laid claim to trademarks (logos) that they had created for clients many years earlier, and that went on to become very successful brands. The reason why they were able to do this was because the issue of IP ownership had not been dealt with in the contract.
IP awareness training can, of course, take a number of forms. The most basic form would be the creation of manuals or guidebooks or an IP protocol for use within the company. This is probably the least effective form because company manuals are often not read or adhered to. Manuals do have a place if they are used in conjunction with seminars – these seminars can be done for staff en masse, or they can be done on a departmental basis. Regular sessions (perhaps annually) are likely to be far more effective than one-off seminars. The company’s IP attorneys are very likely to offer such training to the company’s legal, marketing and technical staff.
In conclusion, when it comes to IP awareness programmes, the intention is not to create IP experts, but rather to make sure that employees are aware of IP and how it might affect the company. What is critically important, of course, is that all employees know where to go to when they have IP queries. They must also know how and where they get authorisations regarding matters with IP implications. Lines of authority, chains of command and internal processes are clearly very important.
Good IP awareness training should strive to do more than simply create awareness and a basic understanding of IP. It should set out to leave the company’s employees feeling proud of the IP that sets their company apart and makes it successful. It should also leave those employees wanting to enhance, and improve, that IP.
Gaelyn Scott is head of the IP Department at ENSafrica. She can be contacted on +27 83 632 1445 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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