Trade Forum Features

Q&A with WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry

24 April 2014
ITC News
The importance of intellectual property to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and the methods of protecting it to foster external investment and revenue growth.

WIPO Director-General Gurry meets inventors at the 2012 Geneva Inventions Fair. © Emmanuel Berrod/WIPO

International Trade Forum talks with Francis Gurry, Director-General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), about how small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can gain from increasing their intellectual property (IP) knowledge.

Q: Why is IP important for SMEs and what are the most common ways to protect it?

SMEs and microbusinesses represent more than 90% of enterprises in most countries. They contribute significantly to innovation, employment, exports and economic growth.

IP rights are essential for SMEs to protect and manage their creations. A registered trademark or design can enhance brand identity and a patent application can attract investment. A search in a patent database can lead to strategic alliances. A well-protected trade secret can ensure a competitive advantage. Copyright can cover works ranging from books, music, paintings, sculpture and films to computer programs, databases, advertisements and technical drawings.

The choice of vehicle for protecting such valuable property depends on the company’s business strategy. Many successful business plans integrate IP as a component from the beginning.

Q: What are the biggest IP-related challenges for SMEs?

Intellectual property can assist an SME in almost every aspect of business development, from product development to marketing and beyond. At its core, it enables businesses to protect their inventive, innovative and creative output from competitors. By doing so, it converts those outputs into assets.

While IP is very important in the modern knowledge-based economy, SMEs often do not use the IP system to its full potential. This is down to a variety of reasons, including lack of awareness and the perceived cost and complexity of using it. Companies may also lack skills and competences needed to exploit the system to best advantage.

Q: How is WIPO helping SMEs in regard to IP?

One of our aims is to increase the number of SMEs successfully managing their IP assets to create value and increase competitive advantage. WIPO provides a range of services, activities and resources to assist SMEs in better exploiting the IP system and to facilitate access to related resources.

WIPO reaches out to individual SMEs chiefly through support institutions and relevant government institutions. It assists them through training-of-trainers programmes focused on exploiting IP assets through branding, marketing, innovation and access to finance.

WIPO’s global IP services systems, such as the Patent Cooperation Treaty (patents), the Madrid system (trademarks), the Hague system (industrial design), and the Global Infrastructure services, offer a more economical and less complex alternative to enterprises of all sizes. They enable companies to obtain international IP protection and to build collaborative networks and technical platforms to share knowledge. They simplify IP transactions, including free databases and tools for exchanging information.

The WIPO website includes information specifically designed to assist and advise SMEs, with regularly updated materials. These include publications and studies on IP asset management covering topics tailored to SME needs such as financing, strategic use and enforcement. WIPO also publishes a monthly electronic newsletter on issues of interest to SMEs and other stakeholders.

SME owners can search WIPO’s PatentScope database, which provides access to international Patent Cooperation Treaty applications on the day of publication as well as millions of national patent applications. Other WIPO databases, which search registered trademark and design collections, are also useful.

WIPO also supports the establishment of Technology and Innovation Support Centres, which are designed to provide innovators in developing countries with access to locally based technology information services, such as facilitating access to patent databases and other scientific and technology resources.

Q: What are some issues SMEs should consider in relation to IP rights when entering export markets?

Pricing products in export markets depends partly on the extent to which their associated trademarks are valued by consumers and the extent to which they face competition. Adaptation of the product, brand, design and packaging involves creative work that may be protected through the IP system.

A portfolio of IP assets, such as patents and trademarks, may convince investors, venture capitalists and financial institutions to fund forays into export markets. In agreements with local partners it is important to clarify ownership of IP rights, particularly if the products will be manufactured, packaged or modified abroad. Marketing and advertising campaigns rely strongly on trademarks, which if not registered are much more difficult to enforce. The timing of participation in fairs may be affected by the timing of IP protection applications.

Safeguarding IP in export markets may help a company prevent others from imitating or copying a product (or parts of it) without authorization. It also enables a small firm to access new markets through licensing, franchising and joint-venture agreements with other firms. Failure to consider IP issues may result in significant losses if products happen to infringe upon the rights of others. Exporters often realize the importance of protecting IP only after they have missed deadlines for applications or their product or brand has been affected.

When entering export markets, SMEs should also realize that IP rights are territorial in nature; that there are important differences in IP procedures worldwide; that most countries require the hiring of a local agent; and that there may be national, regional or international options for filing applications for IP protection. SMEs should also bear in mind that the cost of protecting IP abroad may become a financial burden. Still, a smart IP management system will assist in containing overall protection costs to affordable levels.

Q: How can SMEs protect their intellectual property abroad?

As mentioned earlier, IP rights are territorial. That means SMEs must protect IP assets in each and every country in which they operate. Certain regional IP systems - ARIPO and OAPI in Africa, EAPO in Eurasia and EPO and OHIM in Europe - provide for the filing for and granting of IP rights valid in countries that are party to that system. This helps in reducing complexity and cost.
Additional help in protecting and maintaining IP rights abroad comes via WIPO’s global IP services systems. SMEs can also contact their local or national trade organizations, Chambers of Commerce and national IP offices for support.