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The ins and outs of IP licensing

31 October 2023

The ins and outs of IP licensing

A comprehensive licensing agreement can drive profits well beyond expectations – while an overly permissive one can be a net neutral or even a negative.

What is IP licensing?

IP licensing refers to agreements between IP owners and other parties that allow the latter to use the former’s intangible assets for a price. This is often paid as a recurring cost and is typically referred to as a royalty.

All major types of IP can be licensed, including patents, trademarks, copyrights, design rights and even trade secrets. That said, registered forms of IP such as patents and trademarks are generally much easier and more profitable to license compared to non-registered forms of IP like trade secrets. This is due to the well-defined and explicit protections for registered IPs that their non-registered counterparts lack. Alongside direct exploitation through products sold or services rendered by the owner, licensing is typically one of the most effective, reliable ways IP can generate revenue long-term.

Therefore, it is essential for the would-be licensor to establish the purpose of a licensing deal before drawing up any terms. Is it to monetize “on-the-shelf” IP that is of little relevance to the owner’s core business, or is it to bring technology to market without going through extended product development? Alternative objectives include influencing the competitive ecosystem, securing equity stakes in startups and achieving better rates by propping up suppliers. Once the business model is clear, it becomes much easier to structure the licensing deal.

IP licensing ups and downs

Licensing IP is often a central part of a company’s growth strategy, and with good reason. This undertaking offers many potential benefits:

  • Rapid expansion: Pre-existing infrastructure can quickly accommodate new branding, avoiding the massive overheads of starting off from scratch.
  • Increased market share: In a similar vein, licensees can bring owners’ products, services and branding elements to markets they could not (affordably) access themselves.
  • Spreading of risk: Neither the owner nor the licensee is alone in shouldering risk, mitigating the overall damage of any losses. Also, a licensing agreement’s function as a passive income stream inherently reduces risk.
  • Competitive advantage: If one creator or organization strategically licenses IP while competitors do not, they are likely to gain the upper hand.

All that said, there are also possible hazards, including:

  • Potential infringement: With even the most secure of agreements, licensing causes you to lose a measure of control over the assets involved. This increases the chances of infringement as licensees may not be as scrupulous or stringent in guarding your IP.
  • Unfair or excessive limitations: Conversely, some IP licenses are quite restrictive as an overcorrection to this entrustment. If a licensee can find a more favorable arrangement with a competing provider, you are likely to lose a strategic partnership.
  • Brand tarnishment: Just as a licensee might not respect your IP, their actions could also damage your brand reputation and goodwill. Unethical business practices or inferior quality deliverables will likely harm your brand’s public standing by association.
  • Possible financial loss: While a well-negotiated license can financially benefit an IP owner, an unclear, haphazard or otherwise flawed arrangement could imperil the bottom line.

Types of IP licensing

Once you have decided to move ahead with a licensing strategy in full awareness of the pitfalls, you must consider what form your agreement will take. The exact terms and conditions that each IP licensor sets vary widely. Nevertheless, a typical copyright, trademark or patent license often falls into one of the following three categories:

  • Exclusive: This license provides its recipient with the (largely unencumbered) right to use and benefit from the owner’s IP rights. No other parties can use the IP, and barring any exceptions defined in the agreement (e.g., for non-commercial research and development), this restriction also applies to the owner.
  • Non-exclusive: Here, a licensee receives the rights to use an IP asset, but the licensor can confer similar or identical rights upon other licensees. Also, the owner is not limited in their use of the IP.
  • Sole: The recipient of a sole IP license has no competition from third parties for the use of the particular IP and the rights thereto, but the IP’s owner can also use it.

As an example, an invention’s owner might grant exclusive rights to a licensee to use a patent within a defined geographic area. Outside that area, the license could apply but be non-exclusive – or completely invalid. Alternatively, a licensee might have exclusive rights to use a trademark for a select time period and have non-exclusive rights thereafter.

In other words, IP licenses often are not entirely exclusive or non-exclusive but some hybrid of both. Numerous factors play into the stipulations and bounds of a license.

Creating maximum value

Inventors and creators must do their due diligence and research long before entering into licensing agreements so they do not run into surprises – or conflicts – later on.

When the time comes for licensing negotiation, precision is the name of the game. There must be no ambiguity or room for confusion for either party, as uncertainty early on could be the seed for litigation in the future. All rights being granted must be precisely specified and all terms concretely defined.

Last but not least, negotiating a payment or royalty structure to which all parties agree is a must. In the end, a licensing agreement is a business partnership, so it must benefit all sides to succeed. An exploitative or bad-faith arrangement is not likely to bear fruit for long. While every IP owner has the right to issue licenses to their greatest possible benefit, when properly managed, licensing is a practice where the rising tide can lift all boats.

About the author

 Parag Thakre

Parag Thakre

is the managing director for the Dennemeyer Group in India, which provides end-to-end IP services and solutions globally. He is a technology and innovation-focused multidisciplinary leader with 20+ years of industry experience in applied research, IP, leadership and management. Parag has extensive experience leveraging holistic IP strategy and analytics as a business tool, including due diligence for crucial M&A deals and new investments. Before joining Dennemeyer, he played an instrumental role in setting up and developing an IP monetization and valuation analytics team from the ground up for GE Global Research and GE Licensing & Tech Ventures.




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