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Intellectual property, return on investment and sustainability

The recent Royal Society of Chemistry report Polymers in Liquid Formulations Opportunities for a sustainable future considers developing a sustainable economy by looking at how the formulation, manufacture and use of Polymers in Liquid Formulations (PLFs) could be developed to be more sustainable.

The report identifies three challenges:

  • Innovating for sustainability
  • Creating a circular economy
  • Optimising waste management and recycling processes

Businesses that invest in meeting these challenges need to consider how they can protect the intellectual property arising from their efforts.

Consumers are often willing to pay an “ethical” premium for products or services that are seen to have some greater benefit to society, such as foods carrying one of the Fairtrade Foundation’s FAIRTRADE the Assured Food Standards’ RED TRACTOR certification marks.

Businesses will also pay premiums for products and services that help them meet environmental standards, such as the Carbon Trust’s CARBON NEUTRAL certification.

Securing the intellectual property in the R&D results leading to delivery of these premium products and services gives a business the potential to control competition or the market, both to recoup the investment they have made, and control the use of the results.

Understanding which IP rights apply and how best to use them is important for businesses to secure their investment when developing new products and services for a sustainable economy. This can be illustrated when considering the three challenges identified in the RSC report.

“Innovation” in a field such as chemistry usually points towards technical developments that are usually protected by patents. To some extent, this is the easy answer: invent something then patent it. It is also important to recognise that innovation can also come in the form of process modification or optimisation. These developments may be more suitable to protection as trade secrets, to the extent that they can be kept secret. Software innovations may also rely on copyright or database rights for protection. Additionally, all new products and services need a name and selecting a protectable trademark that conveys the sustainability can also have significant value.

Creating a circular economy can also involve innovation protectable by patents. However, much of the value may be delivered by the way in which businesses configure and conduct their operations. While business processes are difficult to protect by patents, any technical innovations that underpin a new business process may be. Major features of businesses processes are often visible to the world, and so not capable of being a (trade) secret, but detailed implementation can often be concealed and controlled, making trade secret protection viable. As a circular economy involves multiple players who may need some form of verification, the establishment of industry certification with associated certification marks may also be appropriate.

Optimising waste management and recycling processes is likely to demonstrate similar IP characteristics to the creation of the circular economy. Again, the need to develop business processes means that trade secret protection may be a significant aspect of protecting this investment.

It is relatively easy to focus on the technical aspects of developing a sustainable economy and look to patents as the main way to protect IP. It is also clear that there are other IP rights that can also make a significant contribution to protecting investment in this area and deserve attention. Understanding these may not be so simple and they may deserve more attention than might normally be given to get the mix right.

At Wynne-Jones IP we have extensive experience in working with both R&D departments and company boards to identify and harvest IP within a business. We offer expert strategic advice that will enable to maximise your returns on investment when developing for sustainability. For more information please contact Martin Hyden, Head of Sustainability, Partner, Patent and Trade Mark Attorney.


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