How Dyson is winning the intellectual property war
Gill Smith, head of intellectual property at Dyson, has some invaluable tips on protecting your IP
At Dyson we file new patents every week and recently launched a new vacuum cleaner called The Ball…, which took three years to develop. Its technology is protected by 182 patents and patent applications around the world.
You've got to start with the intellectual property (IP) fundamentals. To be patentable, an invention must be novel. An invention is not novel if it's been disclosed before filing the application. Don't show your idea to a potential manufacturer without a confidentiality agreement in place, as you would no longer be entitled to a patent for it, irrespective of your contribution.
Next, consider all types of innovation for protection, not just product developments. Generally, all technical innovations are capable of securing patent protection, although there are exceptions. Methods can be protected too. And remember to consider each original feature. Every Dyson machine incorporates many different innovations, each having its own family of patents.
Securing a patent is a lengthy, complicated and expensive process, especially if you want overseas protection. Renewing them annually can be costly too. Then, if you need to litigate, that's another significant cost to consider. Take advice on whether it's really worth it. During the early years when James Dyson had no income, protecting and renewing his patents for his vacuum cleaner nearly bankrupted him. Nevertheless, all companies, large and small, should invest to protect their intellectual property.
How far to take it
In terms of how far you should go, every company is different. There's no point filing vast numbers of patent applications but going bankrupt in the process. Don't waste money on what cannot be enforced – but don't underestimate the value of strong IP rights either.
If you have one or more ideas you think might require protection, question whether the idea is new. Make sure it hasn't been disclosed outside your business without a confidentiality agreement in place. Is it really yours? To own the IP rights to an idea, it must have been created solely by you.
Most importantly, get good advice. Companies generally don't have the luxury of in-house lawyers, so get an IP audit from a qualified patent lawyer – if only to learn what you should be looking out for.
Then build the relationship through regular, in-depth contact with the people working on the company's inventions. Your patent lawyer should actually come to your premises to get an idea of how your business works.
If you discover a company is copying your product, there are a number of ways to take action, but normally it will be through a court in the appropriate jurisdiction. Sometimes, you can make use of Advertising Standards Authorities and Customs Authorities. But try to persuade the ‘infringer' to stop before it gets to court. In 1999, Hoover infringed the fundamental patent relating to our Dual Cyclone… technology. We offered to settle well before trial, but Hoover refused. After a long 18 months the court agreed that Hoover had infringed our patent. Hoover ultimately had to pay damages of £4m.
If you suspect your IP rights have been infringed, get advice from your patent lawyer – your position may not be as strong as you think it is. If negotiations with the infringer don't result in a swift agreement, be prepared to go to court. But try to continue negotiations and consider mediation. It's always better to reach an agreement than to have an order imposed by the courts.
Gill Smith is head of intellectual property at Dyson. After starting in 1998 she then set up the inhouse IP department.