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News analysis

Start-ups should start out by protecting IP

Despite being located in one of the world's best intellectual property (IP) legal frameworks - ranking alongside the EU or Switzerland - many start-ups in Singapore seem ignorant or in denial about protecting their ideas and innovation.

According to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2015/2016, Singapore ranks top in Asia and fourth globally for having the best IP protection. The Singapore Government, through organisations such as the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (Ipos), is probably more enthusiastic about promoting IP usage and expertise than any other government in Asia.

But there seems to be little awareness about and practise of IP protection.

Most local entrepreneurs are so consumed with developing business ideas, creating a market and securing funding that IP protection is relegated to the back burner, if not forgotten.

This is not just a problem for young entrepreneurs unfamiliar with the law or IP. I have personally witnessed even law-savvy start-ups failing to take appropriate action.

The initial steps of IP protection are not expensive. It takes just a few hours with an IP expert to identify which business aspects need protection, such as trademarks, designs, processes and inventions, and estimate the cost. There are also modern tools which allow fast and inexpensive IP evaluation.

While actions such as patent filing can be expensive or time-consuming, most IP protections are affordable and will cover the basics.

For example, all you need to protect copyright is proper documentation of the creative process. When working with external vendors such as design agencies, unrestricted rights should be quickly transferred in order to avoid claims issues. Trademark and design filings can be done cheaply via the Ipos website.

Some inventions may not even need patent protection if handled as a trade secret.

These actions must be taken early in the start-up process, ideally before business ideas are revealed to the public at the fund-raising stage. Local venture capitalists and seed investors are themselves more conscious of the need for unique IP. Fundedhere - Singapore's first licensed equity- and debt-based crowdfunding platform - now requires start-ups to have established IP as an initial compliance filter.

Indeed, IP protection is now becoming part and parcel of the basic due-diligence checklist for investors.

For innovation to thrive, and for Singapore's start-up ecosystem to grow, IP must be seen as an integral, albeit intangible, asset. In the early growth stage, good basic IP provides a first-mover advantage to capture market share and creates barriers to entry.

One important IP rule is that whoever files a claim first has better rights to protection. In my work as an IP lawyer, I have seen trademarks "stolen" by competitors with identical or similar domain names. Filing claims at an early stage would have prevented such "theft" or disputes.

As a business matures beyond the start-up stage, its promoters can decide if they need more expensive or international extension of IP protection.

Without doubt, Singapore's legal framework provides the most robust IP protection for start-ups in Asia. Local entrepreneurs can draw from the waters of this abundant oasis to ensure that the seeds of great ideas and innovation grow to their full potential.

• Peter Wild is managing partner at WildPeak, Singapore and has invested in local start-ups such as Fundedhere.com. He has over 20 years of experience in international IP law, focusing on trademarks, copyright and design.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2016, with the headline 'Start-ups should start out by protecting IP'. Print Edition | Subscribe