IP strategist: Why do more companies not have a chief IP officer?

IP strategist: Why do more companies not have a chief IP officer?

The chief IP officer role is relatively young; but regardless of what you call it, there are still too many companies with no designated person responsible for handling intellectual property at the strategic level

Recently, I had the opportunity to run a workshop with the Licensing Executives Society of Great Britain and Ireland to explore why we do not see more C-level professionals dedicated to intellectual property. The audience was a mix of expert IP strategy practitioners, including patent attorneys, other IP service providers (eg, data analysts) and in-house IP strategists. The goal of the meeting was to identify avenues to raise the profile of intellectual property to the strategic level at a wider variety of companies.

In 2015, Raconteur published an article, “The new role of the CIPO”, exploring the emergence of the CIPO job title (and variations of it). As far back as 2007, IAM has been discussing the emergence of the role of CIPO and the important value that someone working in this capacity can bring to a company. That was eight years before the Raconteur article was published.

Yet a simple LinkedIn search for ‘chief IP officer’ yields a list of about 827 professionals with some variation of that title. A search for ‘chief information officer’ yields 27,303 results. So what is holding companies back from raising the profile of IP matters to the C-suite level?

‘Not my problem’ scenario

Based on our discussions, it became clear that within some organisations, IP matters tend to fall into silos based on job function. No one individual is focused on the overall role of intellectual property and its value for a business’s success. Additionally, there tends to be a belief that a senior executive or someone with decision-making power is making the important business decisions with respect to intellectual property. At worst, intellectual property is not being managed strategically at all and no one is responsible for its contribution to the business. At best, someone does recognise that strategic IP matters need to be addressed, but the clear lack of ownership indicates that intellectual property is not fully integrated into the business. In this scenario, the board is most definitely not receiving updates and strategic planning around IP matters.

Proving that intellectual property matters

Back in 2000, when Rembrandts in the Attic was published, there was a momentary spotlight on IP valuation and strategic licensing. The book was cited as launching an IP revolution. The fact that 17 years later intellectual property has yet to find a seat in the boardroom suggests that calling this a revolution might have been a little premature. There has been more of an evolution of thinking in this area: as more and more cautionary tales and success stories emerge, the importance of IP strategy grows. For example, start-ups tend to run lean and intellectual property is too often viewed as a cost centre rather than a value driver. However, this is changing as more stories emerge about start-ups losing considerable value and buyer confidence and seeing drastic cuts to their overall valuation when their patent portfolios are not properly managed. Meanwhile, developments such as Microsoft’s recent purchase of SwiftKey demonstrate that a company with a strong IP strategy and a bulletproof IP portfolio can walk away at a higher exit value. As more of these stories emerge, the importance of strategic IP thinking strengthens.

Not seeing intellectual property for all that it is

When intellectual property is seen only as a legal issue, it does not get the business attention it needs. This is not to say that legal professionals are not equipped to carry out strategy; it just means that strategic IP thinking goes beyond drafting and filing patents and patent litigation. Intellectual property is rife with jargon and matters which affect the business must be articulated to C-suite executives in a language they understand. The person responsible for intellectual property need not necessarily be a C-level executive, but the role is more than that of an IP portfolio manager. An IP strategist must understand all the business’s needs and be able to engage with decision makers at every level – from the vice president of R&D to the chief technology officer – as well as with the general counsel. Those fulfilling this role must be able to articulate the IP strategy to all aspects of the business, including finance, human resources and information technology.

An issue of influence

At the end of the workshop, we all agreed that work still needs to be done to raise the profile of the business impact of intellectual property. We learned that a cultural shift still needs to take place before intellectual property reaches the C-suite level in more corporations. More evidence needs to be published and regularly shared to show the impact that intellectual property can have on a business, while all the different facets of intellectual property need to be continuously articulated. Every company with an IP portfolio will benefit from having someone with influence at the senior executive level responsible for intellectual property. This may not be a CIPO, but it must be someone who can listen, connect, integrate and disseminate IP information throughout the business and provide excellent communication across all business lines. The role of the CIPO or IP strategist within a business is that of a renaissance polymath.

Karl Barnfather is chairman and partner at Withers & Rogers LLP, Leamington Spa, United Kingdom

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