To get an idea of the strategic importance of "intellectual assets" in general, take a look at how value is assigned to FTSE 100 companies. Back in the 1980s, market capitalisation and balance sheet asset values followed each other closely. But look at the top businesses today and you will find that up to 80% of their value no longer relates to "hard assets". The difference is accounted for by a whole range of intangibles, which need to be properly protected.

A survey from the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) says that "SMEs and the mass of micro-enterprises (businesses with 0-9 employees) which form the cradle of Intellectual Property (IP) are in the main effectively unaware of the IP system."

Part of the problem is that whenever the term "intellectual property" is used, many business people think only of patents, and in many cases, patenting is simply not a relevant or appropriate strategy. However, companies with innovative physical products or processes are a clear exception. If you can secure a patent for these innovations, it can deliver real value by giving you a time-limited monopoly on their exploitation.

With the patenting process, maintaining confidentiality is vital, especially in the early stages. If you think a patent may be relevant to your invention, you should not disclose it to others without having a confidentiality agreement in place. Also, unless you're a real expert you'll need professional help.

As an employer, you will generally own the copyright in work done by your staff

If it's the outward appearance of your invention that is novel, then you can apply to register a design, which can cover distinctive shapes, decorations and patterns. Five years' worth of protection costs £60 and gives you an automatic right to challenge anyone copying your product.

But, many knowledge-based businesses have innovations that lie in software or in services for which these formal registered rights are seldom relevant. The law that protects anything expressed as a "literary work" is copyright - that includes software. It is important to assert your copyright ownership wherever you are using code or wording such as on your websites and promotional materials. A "c" in a circle, followed by a date and the phrase "all rights reserved" is all you need to invoke up to 50 year's protection.

Nevertheless, care is needed even with this "automatic" right. As an employer, you will generally own the copyright in work done by your staff (such as software), but this may not apply to work done by contractors. Also, developers have a habit of re-using code from elsewhere and you need to be confident you are not infringing existing copyright.

There are many other important types of intellectual assets that contribute to your company's value, - customer knowledge, designs of tools, unique technical capabilities and even awards you have won. There is also "goodwill" that helps you earn repeat business. In these cases, a registered trademark can be very helpful to protect your name and branding and provide a "hook" on which to hang this goodwill.

Trademarks fall somewhere between patents and designs. They are organised into classes, and most companies will benefit from some expert advice on choosing the right ones, as well as formulating appropriate wording. However the application process itself is quite simple and relatively quick, taking under six months from start to finish.

Whatever strategies you choose to protect your intellectual assets, the most important aspect is to keep them under review and ensure that you are making the most of their potential value.

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