Product Technology Course: Intellectual Property Issues
This page was originally written by Susan Corbett, of Victoria University of Wellington, as part of her study, Intellectual property in Technology teaching, identifying intellectual property implications and issues that emerge from selected Technology Online case studies.
Just as there are several different stages of development of a product, there are different kinds of intellectual property (IP) implications. Sometimes certain IP that is relevant to one product category will not necessarily be relevant to another category. For instance, one product might be suitable to protect by a registered design or by relying upon copyright. Another might need to be protected by a patent.
At the beginning of a project developers don't really know whether they might eventually develop something that is likely to have commercial value. For that reason it is advisable to protect an idea and its early stages of development by keeping them secret, and asking people who are needed to discuss the plans with to sign a confidentiality agreement. Anyone who talks about their invention or design in public cannot file a valid application for a patent or a registered design afterwards.
Drawings and designs, including CAD models of students' ideas, are copyright. No formality is needed for this protection – it arises automatically. Students should ensure they date and put their names on any such items, as this will mean there is a clear record of their copyright ownership.
As students are making their products at school, usually with the help of teachers and the use of some school equipment, there is a possibility that the school itself might be entitled to claim that it is a joint owner of the IP in a student's product. This highlights the importance of New Zealand schools having intellectual property policies, which set out clearly the relationship between the school, teachers and students with regard to intellectual property created on school premises.
If a student's product appears to have commercial value then it might be worth protecting the IP by applying to the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand to register a patent or design. This is a complicated and time-consuming process. It can be done by a non-legally qualified person but often it is safer to enlist the assistance of a patent attorney.
At this stage students might find it useful to explain their product to a potential investor who could assist with the costs. Remember that students who do this should always ask the investor to sign a confidentiality agreement. Such an agreement safeguards the student's ownership of his or her idea (although it does not necessarily provide 100% security – the only way to be completely safe is to never discuss a new idea or product with anyone).
In addition, however, the fact that an idea, product, or process has only ever been discussed under the auspices of a confidentiality agreement, is considered to preserve the novelty of the idea for the purposes of applying to register a patent or design.
IPONZ has developed a procedure called gazetting which will allow students who display their product at events such as school science fairs to claim novelty, provided the student applies for patent or design registration within six months of the gazetted event. The procedure for gazetting, and more information about its effect, can be downloaded from the IPONZ Information Library.
Instead of registering a patent or design, some inventors prefer to 'flood the market' with their new product, using the protection of a registered trade mark to build up a reputation for the product.
This can be an effective strategy, but it does not prevent competitors copying a product and putting their own versions on the market. The inventor would then have to keep ahead of competitors by regularly developing newer versions of the product and/or by convincing customers that products sold under their trade mark are better quality, or more reliable than those of competitors.