Innovation and IP activity – the trade mark of tough times?

Innovation and IP activity – the trade mark of tough times?

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What do AirBNB, Uber, Instagram and Pinterest have in common? They all have a net worth in the £multi-billions, they all filed to register their trade marks or claimed first use in 2010, and all were founded during the recession that followed the financial crisis of 2008.

Looking back at the last global recession shows that, while it was incredibly difficult for people and companies worldwide, it also cultivated a wave of innovation that resulted in some of the most ground-breaking companies of the twentieth and early twenty-first century. These are companies that have become truly disruptive forces and are turning traditional industries on their head. They tapped into changing social norms, some of which were precipitated by the economic climate, such as the “rent don’t buy” phenomenon and sharing economy. They also capitalised on advances in big data and the rise of the gig economy.

Enter 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic has brought unique health and economic difficulties across the globe; it seems likely these will endure for some time to come. Already, though, there are signs that human resilience and our knack for invention is coming to the fore. Despite the natural limitations on the process of filing during the strictest lockdown phase, IP offices across the world have been reporting record levels of trade mark applications.

The UK IPO reported a 45% increase in the number of trademark applications made in July 2020 compared with April 2020, hitting a record 13,092. The USPTO reported that August 2020 was its “biggest filing month yet, with 76,400 classes”. Analysis by Clarivate delivered at the recent WTR Connect conference found that trademark applications are up on 2019 by 20% in China, 10% in Australia and 6% in India.

With increasing awareness of the importance of protecting ideas early in the business development cycle, the volume of trademark registrations is a good indicator that entrepreneurial activity is thriving during challenging times. The people and organisations who can predict the way society will change as a result of pandemic pressures and create products and services that meet new needs stand to benefit if they can bring those ideas to market – suitably protected from imitation.

Changing markets boost demand for IP registration activity and enforcement

As well as start-up entrepreneurs developing entirely new ideas, established businesses are also busy pivoting their business to respond to changing consumer demand or meet a new need and registering their ideas as they go.

For some, the leap seems logical. Vobster Marine Systems is a UK company specialising in diving apparatus including rebreathers. This week their application to register “3CPAP” in class 10 – which covers  medical devices for assisting breathing – was published in the UK Trademark Journal, an application filed in May this year. With dive holidays looking unlikely for the foreseeable future, this is an intelligent approach to product and market diversification. Similarly, we have see numerous breweries diverting resources and equipment to producing hand sanitiser and a few trade mark battles brewing when applications are made.

An example of a business switching up its business model in response to prevailing circumstances is frozen food retailer Iceland, which has just applied to register “Swift” as a trade mark, with industry commentators linking this to their move towards offering same day frozen food delivery. Demand for food delivery services has rocketed during the crisis and while Iceland has historically relied more on its bricks-and-mortar presence, launching online delivery for the first time in 2019, improving delivery speed is a shrewd move as shoppers stay at home through choice or government restrictions.

Finally, in a good example of making the best of a bad situation, the trade mark “Hand Santatiser” was recently published for opposition, lending a festive feel to pandemic protection!

All of this activity is keeping trademark lawyers, administrators and support service providers busy. As well as increased filing levels, brands need to keep a keen lookout for new market entrants who may file marks that are too similar to their own. Added to this is the risk of counterfeit producers entering markets and threatening brand reputations. There has been a marked rise in counterfeit medical products and personal protective equipment as unscrupulous organisations market their own unlicensed versions of products that have come to be in high demand.

The role of IP in recovery

The role of IP regulation is to ensure that innovators can be rewarded for their creativity in solving the challenges faced by society and meeting its needs. In turn this encourages more innovation and creates a virtuous circle that can drive economic recovery and growth. Along the way, it can give rise to some of the companies that, like those that rose out of the turmoil of the financial crisis, will change the way we think about how we consume and transact business.

Not all the ideas that achieve trademark registration in 2020 will become the next Uber or AirBNB, but some just might. It is good to see that, in the midst of adversity, the human desire to innovate remains as strong as ever.