Research Blog Series: Managing Intellectual Property Assets for Creative SMEs

As part of the CREATe Research Blog Series, Mindy Grewar reports on research at the University of St Andrews into the management of IP by creative businesses .


Textile design by Angharad McLaren

Project: Managing Intellectual Property Assets for Creative SMEs (Part 1 & Part 2 below)

Investigators: Professor (now Emeritus) Barbara Townley, Post-Doctoral Researcher Dr. Henning Berthold, Dr. Shiona Chillas, Dr. Nicola Searle, Knowledge Transfer Associate Eilidh Young and PhD student Melinda Grewar.

This project at the University of St Andrews’ Institute for Capitalising on Creativity focused on improving understanding – for practitioners and academics – of how companies in the cultural and creative sector define and manage their Intellectual Property (IP). As part of the project we conducted extensive interviews with creative organisations based in Scotland.

This project asked, how are practitioners protecting and enforcing their IP rights, particularly with the limited resources that are typical of organisations in this sector? Usually, companies in the creative industries are micro (1-10 employees)- to medium-sized operations that find it difficult to prioritise time and finances for  managing IP, despite its potential as an income source. Our interviews with more than 122 practitioners in fashion, product design, film, TV, music, publishing, dance, theatre and computer games provide insight into some of the challenges of creative design and production in globally connected markets, and details of this sector’s methods—many successful, some less so—for exploiting IP.

Typical among the strategies we found are actions that side-step legal IP protection, mainly due to time pressure, lack of knowledge and financial resources, in favour of methods developed through industry experience. Examples include documenting products on social media in order to assert producers’ identity; building producer networks that watch for possible rights infringement and support property claims; and novel ways to generate ideas and products, such as collaborating with games users, sharing designs with Creative Commons licenses, and delivering goods to market before competitors.

Conducted in partnership with Creative Scotland, we have written a casebook of IP management examples called Tales from the Drawing Board (Grewar, Townley and Young, 2015), which can be downloaded as a free resource. By illustrating the stories of successful ventures we show how decisions about IP issues are experienced in practice within the business context, and the impact of these decisions. Indeed, the book is regularly used by creative industry practitioners and advisors with business interests in IP. The findings of this project have also been shared with practitioners in seminars, and blogs for CREATe.

This practice-based examination of the understandings and uses of IP is an important avenue of future exploration for research into the role of IP law in the functioning economy.  For academic audiences, a forthcoming book from Oxford University Press (B. Townley, P. Roscoe and N. Searle: Creating Economy: Enterprise, Intellectual Property and the Valuation of Goods), argues that IP law must be understood within the broader processes of creatives learning to become economic actors.

Managing Intellectual Property Assets for Creative SMEs (Part 2)

The second project at University of St Andrews asked how people starting new ventures understand IP, and how this affects how they develop their businesses from design stage (‘ideation’) to product launch (‘monetisation’). We engaged with 17 start-up companies that used design techniques to address challenges in wellbeing, food, sport, ICT and rural sectors of the economy. After observing their ideation sessions and interviewing at later key stages in company development, we found the new companies had very limited understanding of their IP, often assuming it was their knowledge, skills, relationships and strategies. However a few were more IP aware, understanding IP as the representations of their ideas:

‘The role of IP in our business is about our website, our branding, our photography, our copyright, the way we talk on the website. I think it is quite important to protect that.’ (venturer of a new beverage retail model)

This also illustrates our second finding, that IP tends not to enter discussions until the businesses are some distance down the road, when venturers consider how to secure control of their websites or product designs, or how to access finance—where trademarked, copyrighted or registered IP is a factor because it can be converted into equity which the companies can barter with investors:

‘I guess before I jumped in to spending money on a logo and trademark, I wanted to make sure that it was worthwhile, that there was a business. We are getting to the stage now where we can say the business is showing some great success and now is a good opportunity to look at IP. Because you might have something worth protecting, but if all you have got is an idea then that does not mean anything really.’  (venturer of a new beverage retail model)

Economic theories assume that venturers are motivated to innovate because legal means of protecting IP rights help them realise the value in their ideas.  Our practice-based research suggests that motivations are much more socially minded, i.e., there is the desire to create something meaningful. Secondary challenges for venturers are understanding the potential economic value in their ideas, how this is created and delivered. IPR becomes a necessary requirement for leveraging financial investment should this be required.  The research team (Berthold, H., Grewar, M., Chillas, S. and Townley, B.) has contributed  a chapter, ‘Appropriating value: On the relationship between business models and intellectual property’, to the forthcoming book published by Edward Elgar, Research Handbook on Intellectual Property and Creative Industries (C. Waelde and A. Brown, eds.) and is developing a number of academic papers. In addition findings have been shared in a seminar and blog

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