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The Hargreaves review, Digital Opportunity: A Review of Intellectual Property and Growth, reported in 2011 that UK small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are among the most innovative in the world and that innovative firms 'grow twice as fast, both in employment and sales, as firms that fail to innovate’.

It added: 'The more contestable their market is, the faster productivity grows in that market. At the same time, innovation creates and grows new markets for things that have not been seen or done before. These factors combined indicate that innovative firms are 
key to the UK’s future economic growth.’

Intellectual property (IP) is at the heart of innovation. Evidence shows that the use of a registered trademark is associated 
with better innovation, growth and productivity.

These benefits apply to small, young companies as well as large, established ones - a registered trademark can help an SME to compete effectively within a market. Similarly, the use of patents is associated with greater knowledge creation and the better use of knowledge within businesses.

However, three-fifths of SMEs surveyed by the Hargreaves review indicated they would be interested in better access to advice for startup businesses, including initial basic advice on IP. Two-thirds said that what they really needed was access to an intermediary that could provide basic advice on IP issues, rather than the detailed advice offered by a patent attorney.

As one SME told the review: 'I need to understand enough of it correctly so I know when I need to get a lawyer and what the associated costs and implications of not doing so would be.’

This month the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) will launch an e-learning tool with the objective that, at the end of the training, business advisers will be able to:

  • identify business assets that are or that may be protected by IP rights;
  • provide sound but basic advice around those assets;
  • suggest where business can access further information, support or advice if required.

Whereas most businesses may not have contact with more generic business advisers, many do have close ties with and seek advice from specialist advisers such as accountants, banks and even tax authorities. The IPO’s e-learning tool is accordingly designed to assist all professionals who routinely have contact with business to help their clients recognise their IP assets and how best they might protect and develop them.

As the most frequently used source of business advice for small firms, accountants are uniquely placed to have sight of their client’s current and planned business activities, and to help to identify opportunities to protect and exploit their IP. ACCA’s own research has shown that accountants are extremely well positioned to develop IP awareness among their clients and to convince them of the commercial value of IP management.

The importance to the business of an early interaction around IP assets should not be underestimated. With only a basic understanding of how IP management can add value to a business, accountants can act as a crucial catalyst in helping their clients protect the future competitiveness of their business.

For instance, since the internet is or could be key to a business’s brand, it is a sensible and potentially cost-saving move to consider the company name, trademark and desired internet domain name at 
the same time.

In addition, tax incentives such as the patent box or the broader research and development tax credits that are designed to encourage innovation make IP increasingly and directly relevant to a range of professionals, and in particular accountants.

Finally, many accountancy firms are themselves small or medium-sized businesses and can benefit their own as well as their client’s business through having and providing a basic understanding of IP.

The IPO recognises that many professionals hesitate to discuss even basic IP issues with their clients and do not feel confident when IP issues are raised. To address this, it established a working group made up of potential users of the e-learning tool and IP professionals. It included representatives from the banking, business adviser and SME sectors, as well as an IP attorney and Glenn Collins, ACCA UK’s head of technical advisory.

Based on the working group’s input as well as research on preferred learning styles and personas and an ongoing user-centred approach, the e-learning has been designed as an interactive experience. There are short multiple-choice tests, brief videos and four short modules about the business’s assets. The tool is not designed to make anyone an expert and the whole experience can be completed in a little over an hour.

Each module begins with a key 'identify’ question - for instance, 'Does the business have a name or branding?’. This leads into sections on protecting the asset (in this case with a registered trademark), the costs and benefits, planning and a final summary.

There are similar short modules on protecting the way the products look (by using a registered design), how their technology works (by using a patent), and any literary or artistic work, including software (by effectively using copyright).

The tool also addresses the issue of potential infringement through a free-standing section on resolving disputes.

The modules aim to develop a sound understanding of basic IP rights and to overcome any confidence issue the user may initially have.

On completing a module, the user will be rewarded with access to a library that includes bespoke consultancy checklists (among them, a risk register) and tools to enhance and further support the adviser in discussions with clients. It will also provide references for the business adviser to direct a client to relevant sources of further information and/or an IP specialist.

On completing all four modules, users will receive certification from the IPO, which is working with representative bodies to secure CPD accreditation 
for the short course.

Paul Storer is a policy adviser at the Intellectual Property Office