So your company aspires to start an Intellectual Asset Management (IAM) program. That business decision predictably spawns the sometimes intimidating question, “Where do we start?”
What qualifies as an intellectual asset (IA) is often limited only to the eye of the beholder. Consequently, taking inventory of those assets can quickly evolve into an academic exercise that can distract from the business purpose of the effort. The key to avoiding such distraction may be found in the old familiar riddle, “How do you eat an elephant?” Answer: “Small bites.”
To establish a baseline inventory of what the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) calls creations of the mind used in commerce, I recommend a company limit its initial focus to the traditional IA categories of products, services, processes, and brand.
What goods are created by the company, typically for sale to customers, using the company’s labor, effort, and/or processes? If a product is physically limited to be sold in one instantiation (e.g., an single automobile, an original painting), then the specific instance of that product likely is a tangible asset. If the product is not so physically limited, but instead may be copied and separately sold or licensed to multiple customers (e.g., computer software, literary work, prints of an original painting), then the original copy-ready content may qualify as an intellectual (intangible) asset of your company. Also, if your company could conceivably sell or license to another product manufacturer a written formula or design for a tangible product, the formula or design may itself qualify as a product for purposes of gathering an intellectual asset inventory.
What work tasks do your company resources perform or help perform on the behalf of others in return for payment or other things of value? If your company advertises its expertise or capability for purchase by others, such promotion may be a clue that the service offering may qualify as an intellectual asset for purposes of gathering an inventory. Also, if your company has service agreements or subcontractor agreements in place with specific companies and/or individuals, each service contract may itself be considered an intellectual asset (especially if either the deliverables from that contract or the responsibility for that contract may be assigned to someone other than the original parties to the agreement before the contract ends).
How does your company go about delivering its goods and services to customers? If your company developed its means of production from scratch, or if it improved upon the means used by others in the industry, those production processes may qualify as intellectual assets of the company. Also, if the company’s employees follow policies and procedures that give the company a competitive advantage in its industry, those policies and procedures (especially if documented) may qualify as intellectual assets for purposes of baselining an inventory.
What identifies your company’s products and services as having originated from your company in the eyes of your target customers? If your company consistently uses a name, term, design, image, symbol, or any other feature (even color or smell!) to identify a company good or service as being distinct from those of other sellers in the industry, that feature may be an intellectual asset candidate. Also, if your company uses one or more domain names as part of its web presence, those domain names may qualify as intellectual assets for purposes of gathering an inventory.
TIP: Keep it simple! During a company’s first pass at creating an intellectual asset inventory, I recommend the company consider selecting just one of the IA categories as an initial focus. For example, the company may elect to first “pick low hanging fruit” by choosing the IA category that is already the most mature and understood within the organization. Alternatively, the company may prefer first to tackle the IA category that promises to ferret out hidden intellectual assets with potential to create the most near- or long-term value for the company.