Italy – The importance of IP for Startups and SMEs

Time to read: 15 min

The fourth Industrial Revolution, currently experienced by global economy, displays a melting-pot of a wide range of new technologies combined one another, impacting on every aspect of economy, industry and society by progressively blurring the borders of the physical, digital and biological spheres.

The growth of robotics, of artificial and virtual intelligence, of connectivity among objects and of the latter with humans, is contributing to strengthening the virtual side of economy, made of its intangible assets. Even trade is tending more and more towards a trade of intellectual property rights rather than trade of physical objects.

In such a scenario, protection of intellectual property is becoming increasingly important: the value of innovation embedded in any product is likely to increase as compared to the value of the physical object itself. In other words, protection of intellectual property could significantly affect economic growth and trade and shall necessarily go forward as the economy becomes more and more virtual.

Future growth of the 4.0 economy depends on maintaining policies that, on one hand allow connectivity among millions of objects and, on the other, provide for strong patent protection mechanisms, thus, encouraging large and risky investments in technology innovation.

Are SMEs, which represent the beating heart of the Italian economy, ready for all this? Has Italy adopted any policy aimed at boosting innovation and the relevant protection for SMEs?

After more than four years since the launch of the Startup Act (Decree Law No 179 of 18 October 2012), Italian legislation confirms being among the most internationally advanced programs for innovative business support strategies. If we look at the Start Up Manifesto Policy Tracker Startup Manifesto Policy Tracker (a manifesto for entrepreneurship and innovation to power growth in the European Union), published in March 2016, Italy is in second place among the 28 EU Member States, in terms of the take up rate of recommendations made by the European Commission on the innovative entrepreneurship issue.

The Annual Report to Parliament on the implementation of legislation in support of innovative startups and SMEs (Edition 2016) confirms the results of the Startup Manifesto Policy Tracker: Italian ecosystem has grown in terms of number of startups recorded (+41% on the previous year), of human resources involved (+47,5%), of average value of production (+33%) and, finally, of funding raising (+128%, considering access to credit via the SME Guarantee Fund).

This growth is the outcome of both the inventiveness and the attention to innovation that have always characterized Italian entrepreneurs as well as of the progress made by Italian legislation over the past years: changes were introduced in order to boost the national system for business startups and, in some cases, to promote innovative entrepreneurship as a whole.

Adopted measures include, for example: the implementing Ministerial decrees on tax credits for R&D investments; the ITA Service Card for innovative SMEs, the multimedia, bilingual online platform #ItalyFrontiers (the aim of which is to promote capital investment and encourage open innovation projects involving innovative Italian businesses); Italia Startup Visa and Italia Startup Hub (the renewal, under the 2016 Decree on Immigration Flows, of a preferential procedure for the granting of visas and the conversion of permits to stay for self-employed for non-EU citizens wanting to move to Italy or remain there to start up an innovative enterprise); the launch of a new simplified online company incorporation procedure that enables innovative startups to be opened as limited liability companies, granting significant time and cost reductions; the extension (until 2016) and the reinforcement of fiscal incentives available for investment in innovative startups; finally, the extension of the free, simplified access to the Guarantee Fund to include innovative SMEs in order to make it easier for them to obtain credit.

The importance of Intellectual Property in the modern economy

A national policy that has a target of incentivizing the use of Intellectual Property is a policy that will have beneficial effects on the entire national (and international) economy.

Proof of this, are the results of the studies carried out by the European Observatory on Infringements of Intellectual Property Rights and the European Patent Office (EPO) on the contribution of intellectual property rights (IPR) on the EU economy.

The study analyzed the effects of intellectual property on the EU in terms of gross domestic production, occupation, wages and trade. Here are some of the most interesting data:

– 42% of the total economic activity in the EU (approximately EUR 5.7 trillion) and 38% of occupation (approximately 82 million workplaces) is attributable to IPR-intensive industries;

– IPR-intensive industries pay significantly higher wages than other industries, with a wage premium of 46%;

– IPR-intensive industries tend to be more resilient against the economic crisis;

– IPR-intensive industries account for about 90% of EU trade with the rest of the world, generating a trade surplus for the EU of EUR 96 billion;

– about 40% of large companies own IPRs.

The data gathered by this study should raise social and political awareness as to the importance of stimulating not only large companies, SMEs and startups in general, but also those, which use intellectual property.

The innovation criteria

An interesting measure that is showing good results in relation to the dissemination of IPR companies in Italy is the introduction, thanks to the Startup Act, of the concept of innovative startup.

The Startup Act provides facilitating measures (e.g.: incorporation and following statutory modifications by means of a standard model with digital signature, cuts to red tape and fees, flexible corporate management, extension of terms for covering losses, exemption from regulations on dummy companies, exemption from the duty to affix the compliance visa for compensation of VAT credit) applicable to companies which have, as well as other requirements, at least one of the following requirements:

– at least 15% of the company’s expenses can be attributed to R&D activities;

– at least 1/3 of the total workforce are PhD students, the holders of a PhD or researchers; or, alternatively, 2/3 of the total workforce must hold a Master’s degree;

– the enterprise is the holder, depositary or licensee of a registered patent (industrial property), or the owner and author of a registered software.

The Startup Act is still having positive effects on the startups demographic trends. As a matter of fact, during the first six months of 2016 there has been a growth rate of 15,5% in the number of registered companies.

The success of the Startup Act brought the Italian legislator to extend with the Investment Compact (Decree Law No 3 of 24 January 2015)  most of the benefits provided for innovative startups also to innovative SMEs.

By the Investment Compact the Italian Government recognized that innovative startups and innovative SMEs represent two sequential stages of the same continuous and coherent growth path. In a context as the Italian one, dominated by SMEs, it is fundamental to strengthen this kind of enterprises.

The measures in question apply only to SMEs, as defined by the European Commission Recommendation 361/2003 (companies with less than 250 employees and with a total turnover that does not exceed € 43 million), which have, as well as other requirements, at least two of the following requirements:

– at least 3% of either the company’s expenses or its turnover (the largest value is considered) can be attributed to R&D activities;

– at least 1/5 of the total workforce are PhD students, PhD holders or researchers; alternatively, 1/3 of the total workforce must hold a Master’s degree;

– the enterprise is the holder, depositary or licensee of a registered patent (industrial property) or the owner of a program for original registered computers.

Unfortunately to this day the Investment Compact has not produced the expected results: on one hand, there is a problem connected to the not well-defined concept of “innovative SMEs”, differently from what happened with startups; on the other hand, there are structural shortcomings in the communication of government incentives: these communication issues are particularly significant if we consider that the policy on innovative SMEs is a series of self-selecting, non-automatic incentives.

Patent Box

Another important measure related to the IP exploitation is the Patent Box, the optional tax rule applicable to income derived from the exploitation of intellectual property rights.

The Patent Box rules were introduced by the 2015 Stability Act and give to businesses, from 2015 onwards, the option of tax-exempting up to 50% of the income derived from the commercial exploitation of software protected by copyright, industrial patents for inventions, utility models and complementary protection certificates, designs, models, company information and technical/industrial know-how, provided that they can be protected as secret information according to the Italian Code of Industrial Property: meaning patented intangibles or assets that have been registered and are awaiting a patent.

Originally, also the exploitation of trademarks allowed entrepreneurs to choose the Patent Box optional tax rule, but a very recent Decree  erased that provision by excluding trademarks from the Patent Box regime. This exclusion has just been introduced in order to align the Italian Patent Box to the prescriptions of the Organization for Economy Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Said policy has a dual purpose: on one hand, it seeks to encourage Italian entrepreneurs to develop, protect and use intellectual property; on the other hand, it intends to make the Italian market more attractive for national and foreign long-term investment, while protecting the Italian tax base. The incentive encourages the placement, and preservation in Italy, of intangibles that are currently held abroad by Italian or foreign companies and also fosters investments in R&D.

The Patent Box is certainly of great importance for Italian economy and has relevant merits, but it can be further improved. During the convention held on the 8th of May 2017 in Milan entitled “Fiscal levers for business development: the patent box example”, organized by Indicam, the institute for fight against counterfeiting established by Centromarca, it was highlighted that one aspect to improve is that of the Patent Box’s appeal to SMEs: there is a need for this policy, which was thought mainly for large companies, to be really effective. One solution, proposed by the Vice-Minister of Finance and Economy Luigi Casero, guest of the convention, is to «introduce some statistical clusters, a kind of sector studies, an intervention of analysis and evaluation of the fiscal indicators of a specific type of company».


The last matter that deserves to be mentioned is that of the Unified Patent Court: Italy has ratified the United Patent Court Agreement on the 10th of February 2017.

As it is known, in order to start its operations the Unified Patent Court needs the ratification also of United Kingdom. Moreover, one of UPC central division should be located in London in addition to the ones in Paris, Munich. After Brexit this maintaining of the London Court appears inappropriate both under a juridical and an EU opportunistic point of view.

As provided for the UPC Convention a section of the central division should be in Italy because it is the fourth EU member state (after France, Germany and the UK) as to the number of validated European patents in its territory: the London Court should be therefore relocated to Milan.

Moreover Italy is one of the main countries in the EU applying for not only European patents but also trademarks and designs (and so contributes substantial fees) yet it does not host any European IP institutions.

An Italian section of the UPC would certainly bring a higher awareness, also of smaller enterprises, in relation to the importance of IP protection.


A disruptive and unprecedented transformation is taking place, involving industry, economy and society, with its main whose main driver being the relentless ascent of its intangible component.

What we have to do, as a society, is follow this transformation by changing our way of thinking and working, abandoning the old paradigms of the analogic era.

Policy measures as the Startup Act, the Investment Compact and the Patent Box are surely important initial steps that are bringing certain positive effects, but they are not enough and they have not yet achieved the maximum results.

As pointed out by the #StartupSurvey, the first national statistical survey of innovative startups, launched by the Italian National Institute of Statistics and the Ministry of Economic Development (the data were gathered by a mass mailing to all the innovative startups listed in the special section on 31 December 2015), the majority of Italian startups and SMEs (52,3%) have not adopted any formal mechanism, as the ownership of an industrial patent, to protect their innovation. Only 16,1% of the respondents owned a patent and only 11,8% owned a registered software.

Among the reasons that bring startups to not adopt protection mechanisms, the majority of the entrepreneurs (48,4%) claimed to be convinced that the innovation of their enterprise could not be taken away by third parties. On the other hand, a considerable number (25,5%) said that they were not aware of the necessary strategies.

The data gathered by the survey confirm that there is a communication and information issue, as noted in the paragraph above, to be solved.

An interesting initiative relating to this problem is the new questionnaire realized by the Head Office for the fight against counterfeiting of the Ministry of Economic Development. This new and free service has been conceived, in particular, for startups and SMEs, allowing them to carry out an online self-assessment in relation to intellectual property.

The aim of the questionnaire is to make the enterprises aware of their intellectual property range and to direct them towards the adoption of appropriate strategies for the valorization of their intangible assets.

Mattia Dalla Costa
  • Corporate
  • e-commerce
  • Franchising
  • Intellectual property
  • Trademarks and patents

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