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Protecting your intellectual property


April 8, 2010
by Nancy Hill

Innovators must take steps to protect their intellectual property.

Photo: iSockphoto

Challenging economic and market conditions hit the auto industry hard over the past two years and there may be considerable debate about the best ways for companies to survive and thrive, but there certainly is consensus on the need to innovate.

AUTO21, a Canadian Network of Centres of Excellence, focuses on automotive research and development and it supports more than 200 researchers across Canada working on 52 auto-related projects in a variety of areas. Each project is supported and guided by industry or public sector partners. It doesn’t take an ownership role in any intellectual property that results from a project: that’s left to the project’s researchers and partners to determine, but the protection of intellectual property is a serious concern. Here are five important factors companies engaged in innovation projects should consider:

1. Transferring technology. This is done in the auto sector through patenting and then licensing or assigning the technology to a receptor within the industry. It’s typically handled through the technology transfer office at the researcher’s university or institution. Such agreements often lead to further, and more targetted research.

2. Preserving confidentiality. Confidential disclosure agreements require each party to keep all proprietary information secret. The obligation typically expires once the invention or innovation has been made public through the patent system or other methods.

3. How patents work. Patents grant the owner exclusive rights to make, use and sell an invention for 20 years from the date of applications filed after 1989, or 17 years from the date of issue for applications filed prior to 1989.

Patents are granted to any new and useful art, process, machine, manufacture or composition of matter or any new and useful improvement. In the automotive industry, for example, new composites, new powertrains, improved batteries, new sensors or sensing systems and software would be considered patentable. Fees are paid to maintain the patent over it and the application’s lifetime.

4. Filing an application. In Canada and the US there is a one-year grace period to file a patent application, starting when the invention was first disclosed to the public. This grace period is not available in most other jurisdictions.

To obtain valid patent protection your first application must be filed before the invention is disclosed. Canada has applied a first-to-file system since 1989. If there’s more than one patent application for the same subject, the person who filed first gets the protection. Most countries follow the same first-to-file regime, but the US uses a first-to-invent system.