With the expectations of sustainable products a growing concern for consumers, bioplastics are becoming an increasingly important part of the plastics industry. Just like auto companies are searching for alternative sources of energy for transportation vehicles, chemical companies are searching for alternatives in the manufacturing of plastic materials. Fossil fuels won't be available forever, and currently billions of pounds of plastics are being produced and consumed annually, just in the flexible packaging industry alone.
Bioplastics currently represent only a small fraction of this emerging area of development, but usage is growing. Not only are the resources used for production renewable, but some companies are also claiming that the production process has a smaller carbon footprint. There is great potential for collaboration with startups and universities to help overcome challenges and realize the commercial and environmental potential of bioplastics as replacements for the less-sustainable oil-based plastics.
However, although startups, young companies and universities are progressive in their approach to bioplastic technology, protecting innovations through intellectual property is not always a priority. These companies are anxious about bringing their products to market and are often overlooking important intellectual-property opportunities. Intellectual property matters to the success of bioplastic products, and may determine the future landscape of the industry. In fact, the number of current patents for bioplastic products has increased sharply since 2006, when the amount of pending patents also skyrocketed.
Patents are necessary and important, but often are not enough for exuberant startups. Take Vonage, for example, which was sued by Verizon in June 2006 for allegedly using Verizon's patented technology that allowed voice calls to be transferred from the Internet onto the traditional telephone network. Although Vonage claimed its services were developed with its own proprietary technology along with technology licensed from third parties, its lack of intellectual property rights led to it losing the case. In November 2007, Vonage was ordered to pay Verizon $120 million due to patent infringements.
My speculation is that Vonage, along with many other companies, didn't realize all of the opportunities to protect its intellectual property, intellectual assets and intellectual capital. Companies and inventors must always assume that nothing is protected, especially before the patent process is complete.
First, it's important to understand that the terms “intellectual property,” “intellectual capital” and “intellectual assets” are often used interchangeably, but they are really not the same.
Intellectual capital generally refers to knowledge-based assets of an organization and related resources that create value and competitiveness. Intellectual property refers to items that can be legally owned, such as patents, trademarks, trade secrets and copyrights. When intellectual capital becomes codified in some way — preserving it for the future — it becomes an intellectual asset.
Intellectual assets are broader in scope and, in addition to intellectual property, also include publications and other documents and agreements. Intellectual assets may pertain to many aspects of a company's know-how, including unpatented products, designs, formulations, processes and the collective skills, creativity and experience of staff or inventors. Some intellectual assets can be low-cost complements or even alternatives to patents that still help in protecting a company's designs, slogans, names or new products.
The most successful companies are utilizing defensive publications, digital intellectual assets and trademarks in their intellectual asset strategy. Digital intellectual assets and defensive publications are often the two most understated and widely neglected of the three strategies. Here's an overview of all:
c Trademarks are a type of intellectual property that may be a word, name, symbol or device that is used by its owner to identify or distinguish goods or services from those of other entities. Rights in trademarks and service marks, unlike patents and copyrights, arise as a result of use of the mark in commerce to identify the source or origin of goods and service. Trademarks are often the go-to sources for protecting intellectual assets. There are also many non-traditional trademark opportunities as well.
c Digital intellectual assets aren't new to companies or individuals that have been using e-mail accounts and Web domains as proof of ownership of company or product names. Today, branding YouTube channels, Twitter avatars and Facebook pages with the name of a company or product is an easy, legitimate and incredibly traceable way to begin an intellectual asset estate.
c A defensive publication is used to prevent another party from obtaining a patent on a product by distributing a description or drawing of the product to the public so that it becomes prior domain or prior art. Strong publications start with thoroughly documented invention disclosures. The publication also discloses details related to how to make or use the product, discloses embodiments and variations, cites technical references and includes drawings. The most successful are also crafted with specific objectives in mind and are reviewed by technical and legal experts prior to distribution. A defensive publication could also include publicity generation, such as news articles, about your product. For a relatively small fee, your document can be published on a site like IP.com. Your document is almost instantly published and time stamped, archived, and made searchable by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and other patent offices, providing a lasting and secure record that the information disclosed was part of the public domain at that time.
Now is the time to increase your awareness and expertise in intellectual property rights for bioplastics products that could shape your business in the next five years. When you're developing your proactive intellectual property strategy, use intellectual property to build bridges to partners, making it a driver of, not a barrier to, innovation. It may be the key to overcoming some of your challenges with disruptive innovation.
Cheryl Perkins is president and Jeff Lindsay is solution development director at Neenah, Wis.-based management consulting firm Innovationedge LLC.