Ever noticed that when we wish, it’s usually on a star? And when we think of our future, we usually look up at the sky? For the longest time (and probably since the existence of mankind), people have been fascinated with the concept of flying. We dream about it, sing songs about it, study it, and even idolize flying fictional superheroes (despite some of them having a strange penchant for public displays of bright red undies). In fact, Orville Wright, one half of the legendary Wright brothers summed up our never-ending enthrallment with aeronautics pretty well when he said, “If birds can glide for long periods of time, then… why can’t I?”
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Thanks to mankind’s obsession with flight, we have come a long way from the days of wooden wings, hot air balloons, gliders and “flying machines”. The massive breakthroughs and technological advancements in aviation have made air travel, business expansion, vacations in the Bahamas and long distance relationships easier than ever. In such a globally lucrative industry, the protection of intellectual property (IP) has evolved almost into a necessity, both to ward off copycats as well as to stand out among competitors.
Speaking of competition, in South East Asia, there has been a rapid increase in the number of Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) or budget airlines over the past few years. Gone are the days when travelling used to be a luxury only the wealthy section of society could afford. LCCs, which offer “no-frills” services at cheaper prices, have proven immensely popular amongst its customers, expanding from a tiny 3% market share in the year 2001 to a massive 52% share in the year 2012. With such impressive numbers, it is no surprise at all to see fierce rivalries beginning to form in the market, as new budget airline companies are created and existing players extend their network to other countries in the region, all looking to get in on the action. In Malaysia alone, other than the LCC pioneer AirAsia, there is now Firefly and Malindo Air. Other LCCs in the region include Singapore’s Tigerair and Scoot, Indonesia’s Lion Air and Citilink, Thailand’s Nok Air, Orient Thai and City Airways, the Philippines’ Cebu Pacific and PAL Express, and Vietnam’s VietJet Air. And of course, many of us would be familiar with Australia’s Jetstar, which also has a prominent presence in the region.
For these LCCs, and other corporations whose primary source of revenue are derived through the provision of services, building and maintaining brand value is of utmost importance to differentiate one service provider from another. Therefore, they would want to ensure that their IP assets, which would consist mainly of trademarks, copyright and trade dress, are correctly identified and protected. Registered trademarks, properly documented copyrighted work and a well-established, unique trade dress not only help to increase brand recognition, but also give the rights owner legal recourse in case of infringement or copying.
In addition to trademarks, copyright and trade dress, corporations in the technology or design-centric area of the aviation industry (such as manufacturers of aviation and aeronautic products and systems) may also possess other means of protecting their cargo of IP assets. Corporations such as Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company and leading manufacturer of commercial jetliners and defense, space and security systems, rely heavily on patent rights to protect their treasure trove of innovations. In fact, Boeing’s worldwide patent portfolio runs into the tens (if not hundreds of thousands, with patents filed or registered for inventions ranging from aircrafts and aircraft components to flight control systems, aircrew training systems, reflection removal systems and seemingly everything in between!
Technology aside, there are also a lot of products in the aviation industry that are not only able to take us – as Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear puts it – “to infinity… and beyond!”, but are also visually stunning or impressive.
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Take, for instance, the space planes by Astrium SAS, which are cool enough to excite both the nerd as well as the glamour puss in me. To preserve the exclusivity of products like these, i.e. with a special design, appearance or style, it would be wise to register them as Industrial Designs. In fact, Astrium SAS has registered several of its space planes as Industrial Designs in a few countries, including Singapore.
Another point to consider is that in the aviation industry, despite the variety of available IP rights, some parties may choose not to register their IP assets due to the nature of their business. Many innovations, such as improvements in aircraft performance, flight information and etc., may be confidential in nature. Therefore, rather than applying to register these innovations (which would then eventually be published by the IP Office), some IP owners opt to protect them as trade secrets instead. Another benefit of trade secrets is that the protection it offers is potentially for an unlimited amount of time. However, as nothing is more alluring than exposing the forbidden and unknown, ensuring that lips are sealed all around can be a notoriously difficult task. Generally, parties rely on watertight Confidentiality Agreements to keep their valuable information classified.
On the topic of secrecy, whilst it does not exactly relate to “trade” secrets, no article on aviation, in my humble opinion, would be complete without paying homage to the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, a legendary (and my personal favourite) plane. Known popularly as the Stealth Bomber, even though this aircraft was first introduced back in the 1980’s, it remains one of the true long-range stealth bombers around. The B-2 Spirit also has an exquisite “flying wing” and double-W shape, and has always reminded me of a deceptively beautiful but deadly predator.
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Espionage aircrafts aside, knowing what IP rights you own in your business and taking steps to protect them is essential to safeguard your assets. However, this is just half the battle. Similar to a plane on a runway with no pilot in its cockpit, having all the IP rights in the world will not do much to bring about business success unless these assets are actively commercialized. This is especially so in the aviation industry; in such a dynamic, technology-rich market, there is ample opportunity for IP assets to be financially exploited, for instance, through licensing and cross-licensing, joint ventures, strategic alliances for research and development, sale or assignment of IP rights and many others. As Tan Sri Anthony Francis "Tony" Fernandes demonstrated, properly protected and commercialized IP assets can transform anyone’s idea of a holiday from a nearby weekend getaway via a cramped economy seat on a budget airlines, to a relaxed vacation on a private jet to the white sandy beaches of Bora Bora.