This spring, Gennari Aronson, LLP is delighted to host its Scholar in Residence Professor Alfred C. Yen of Boston College Law School. Professor Yen is a nationally recognized scholar, known for his scholarship in Intellectual Property, Trademark, Copyright, and Sports Law. He’s also the Director of the Emerging Enterprises and Business Law Program at Boston College Law School. Professor Yen will be hosting a number of open forums with our clients on a broad range of topics over the next few months. We sat down with him to ask a few questions:
GA: What is “intellectual property” anyway?
Professor Yen: Intellectual property (IP) is a set of limited rights in various creations of the mind. The creations can be inventions, works of art, or symbols and packaging used to identify goods. It’s important to remember that these rights vary considerably from one another and last for varying amounts of time. They include patents, copyrights, and trademarks.
GA: How does a company use IP for strategic competitive advantage?
Professor Yen: This depends on the particular type of IP in question and the strength of the rights that can be obtained. For a few inventions or works of art, a company can sit back and enjoy the profits that come with a legally sanctioned monopoly. For most though, IP is something that helps with product differentiation or delaying the appearance of effective competition. This advantage can be quite substantial, but it is important to understand that a company owning valuable IP must still work hard to out-compete its rivals.
GA: If a company can’t develop a patent for its product or service, what’s left?
Professor Yen: A great deal is left. First, the quality that a company puts in its products matters a great deal, with or without patents. Most bicycles are not made out of patentable technology, yet consumers seek ones that are better made. Indeed, they will pay a premium for performance, even if price matters. Second, once quality is established, branding is important. Customers come to associate a brand with quality, and that enables stronger sales at premium prices. Many brand name goods (bandages, mouthwash, and pain relievers) face competition from generic versions, yet they retain consumer followings and fetch premium prices.
GA: What are the basic steps to protecting a brand?
Professor Yen: The most important thing is to offer a quality product that is strongly associated to your company. Once that association is made, making sure one perfects rights in trademarks or other intellectual property will make it harder for others to encroach on the brand’s value. Good intellectual property counsel can help with understanding these issues and is often essential to a favorable outcome.
GA: What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to a company/team about branding?
Professor Yen: Quality, both as to product and reputation, matters a great deal. And do not assume that intellectual property, or any other kind of legal protection for a brand, relieves a company from having to compete, every day, to maintain quality and reputation.