Build an intellectual property strategy: Do an external IP audit


2. Do an external IP audit

An intellectual property (IP) landscape is a snapshot of key IP external to your business in a particular industry (or technology) for a particular region. It is an important part of your business intelligence and helps you make informed decisions.

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Identify your competitors and their IP

Search existing IP databases to identify your competitors and their IP. Existing IP rights (patents, industrial designs, registered trademarks) are publicly available and freely accessible in many online IP databases as well as a number of commercial IP databases.

Search for IP in every region where you intend to do business

Search relevant IP databases for any existing trademarks, patents, industrial designs or copyright.

Be prepared to seek expertise

Be aware that searching, finding and understanding IP rights can be complex. An IP professional can be of great help and often have experience in searching and drafting IP documents. It is strongly advised to seek the help of a professional, such as any of the following:

  • an IP professional: someone with extensive experience offering their advice as a service
  • an IP agent: someone who has passed qualifying exams and is entitled to act on your behalf with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office
  • an IP lawyer: a qualified lawyer with specialization in IP law and related legal matters

It can be well worth your time to prepare well before you meet with an IP professional. Do your own preliminary search and ask the experts to fill in the gaps.

Do a search in the markets you are interested in to avoid conflicts with IP rights of third parties in those jurisdictions. Look for where your competitors and partners file for IP protection. It is usually a good indicator of their key regions.

There are some important limitations to be aware of, such as the following:


Patent applications filed less than 18 months ago are only available if the applicant has specifically asked for them. Due to the complexity of claims, vocabulary and different languages, it is practically impossible to find every relevant publication.


In general, business names are not necessarily registered as trademarks. Also, note that in some countries like Canada, trademarks do not have to be registered—they may get protection under common law. In Quebec, the Civil Code of Québec has similar principles.


Copyright is automatically established when a work is created. Canada and over 170 other countries have signed the Berne Convention, which deals with the protection of works and the rights of their authors. There is no international copyright registration system, neither are there requirements for formal registration. Most countries have a system in place to allow for the formal registration of copyright, but it is usually only searchable by title.

Note: This is an initial search only. Let an IP professional verify and complement your search.

Identify the IP rights of your suppliers, distributors and clients

Identify the IP rights and position of your suppliers, distributors and clients. This may affect your business. For example, check what registered trademarks your manufacturer owns. Make sure they are not confusingly similar to your trademarks.

Align your research with your business goals and relevant products or services

Identify key IP across the value chain (your suppliers, distributors, etc.).

Sample questions to consider

  • The IP protection of your suppliers can pose an indirect risk to your business. Can you identify their key IP assets? Where is their IP protected? Are there gaps or potential overlap with the IP you have or want to develop?
  • Are you using components that have expiring IP protection? You may be able to get these from other manufacturers or negotiate a more competitive price.
  • Has someone recently registered or is someone using the trademark you are planning to use for your next big idea? Speak with an expert to understand your options.
  • Does your competitor have an aging patent portfolio? This could indicate that new applications have been filed but are not yet publicly available. It could also indicate that IP is sourced from a third party.
  • Does an inventor listed on your competitor's patents now appear on applications from a small start-up? Is this your new competitor?

Find partnerships and new businesses

Find potential licensees by searching for patents and industrial designs in related areas. You can also find patents and industrial designs to buy, license or use to improve your innovations.

Determine your own IP position

To get formal IP rights, check that your creation is protectable and does not infringe on anyone else's IP rights. This can reduce the likelihood of future headaches, such as the following:

  • spending time and money trying to protect your creation, only to realize it cannot be protected
  • dealing with lawsuits if you infringe on someone else's IP rights
  • having to license IP rights from others
  • having to rebrand or reformat your new product if the brand name or logo (trademark) is already being used by someone else or can't be protected

The scope of the search can be general or detailed. This depends on the timing, stage, investment and potential gains of further development. It is always a good idea to have an IP professional ensuring that the search is accurate. A so-called "freedom to operate" search entails obtaining a legal opinion as to whether a product, process or service may be considered to infringe any patent owned by someone else.

Identify the latest innovations in your field

Patent databases enable you to learn about current innovations long before they enter the marketplace. Most patent applications are accessible to the public for the first time when the subject matter of the application is published. In the case of a patent, this generally happens 18 months after filing.

You can also search for potential inventions online and in scientific publications.

Anticipate changes in the market

Keeping track of patents in your field can help you plan for changing market conditions.

For example, many companies have patented technology that makes long-distance surgery possible. You can find this information in patent databases. A company that supplies technology or technical support services to hospitals could use this information to prepare its products or services in ways that meet the new needs of hospitals.

Flag potential commercial issues

You may find that there are patents or industrial designs like yours, but none are in the marketplace. This could be a sign that the invention does not have sufficient commercial potential and that earlier patent owners decided it was not worth continuing.

Other factors that may influence the IP landscape

Many products and services need to comply with certain regulations and standards. Compliance with standards and regulatory approval are often linked with competitiveness and the value of the IP. It is important to learn about your industries' mandatory and voluntary standards and regulations. It is also important to know the accreditation (certification) marks and how these relate to your IP.