orries about sharing valuable knowledge with partners - and concerns about the complexity and cost of protecting that knowledge - still prevent many small companies from undertaking joint research. And among those which have taken part in previous European projects, too many have only considered the security of their intellectual property after a problem has arisen.
"People tend to enter into a partnership agreement without really understanding the IPR issues, in order to get the research funding," says Mónica Miñana, one of the Helpdesk's team of legal experts. "We would like them to address these issues at the outset, so that later problems can be avoided."
Enquiries to the IPR Helpdesk, by country
Help with Proposals
The Helpdesk, operational since last September(1), aims to raise awareness about the importance of intellectual property rights (IPR) in the process of technological innovation, and to promote the use of patent searches to prevent resources being wasted on problems which have already been solved elsewhere.
But it also offers a free personal advice service. In the five months to February, the flow of enquiries was modest, but the Helpdesk's legal team anticipates a rapid increase as research consortiums start to respond to FP5's first calls for proposals.
"We aim to become a key resource for the research programmes," she says. "In the past, many IPR questions have been directed to project officers, who have no specialised training in this field."
To date, the majority of enquiries have come via e-mail - and most have received a written response within 24 hours. The team has dealt both with requests for general information on patents and other means of IPR protection, and with specific queries about contractual issues related to planned joint research projects.
"I have just dealt with one person who sent a whole list of questions relating to the protection of a gene sequence, which he hoped would form the basis for further research with other partners in a European project," she recalls.
"Should he protect his IPR before looking for partners? Should he ask potential partners to sign a confidentiality agreement? Would he need to file a patent before entering into a research contract? What rights and obligations would a contract imply? These are typical concerns - but in a difficult area, given the development of EU law on the patentability of biotechnology products."
Miñana responded with basic information about the various forms of protection available, the requirements for filing a patent, and about the way a research contract works. "We cannot file a patent for you," she explains. "But we have information about patent agents and patent offices in each Member State. In this case, I gave him contact details for an agent in his own region, as well as for the European Patent Office. But I invited him to come back to the Helpdesk again, once he had studied the information we sent."
(1) See `Stand Up for Your Rights', edition 5/98.