Is an “Investment Proposition” Intellectual Property?

I am always keen to see how advisory firms differentiate themselves from the competition. I read recently in one of the industry publications of a firm that suggests that what separates it from other firms is that they have a investment committee that meets quarterly!

Most of us will agree that having an investment committee that meets regularly IS NOT really a differentiator but it got me thinking; is an investment proposition intellectual property that needs to be guarded and legally protected? Is it even a it a trade secret?

First, while we as professionals know how important and time-consuming the investment process is, it is not something clients really place a lot of value on. I don’t mean that it’s not important, just that clients don’t choose one adviser over the other because one of them has a ‘robust investment process’.

 According to the Intellectual Property Office, at the very basic level, an IP results from the expression of an idea. So IP might be a brand, an invention, a design, a song or another intellectual creation. It can be owned, bought and sold. But can a firm claim legal ownership of their investment proposition? Is it patentable? Is it proprietary?

For starter, the academic evidence underpinning most investment propositions are out there for anyone to use (and reference of course.) While each firm will differ in how they interpret, organise and apply these, it will be very hard for a firm to claim exclusivity and stop others using it.

Take a situation where an adviser has been in Firm A for several years, and  leaves to join firm B or set up their own firm C, what stops them from taking the ideas with them? Unless they copy the process word-for-word, how does firm A prove that the proposition is theirs? 

Take another instance where Firm X gives Firm Y the ‘license’ to use its investment proposition, for a fee. If we ignore all the culture issues, Firm Y may go down this route because they have neither the time nor the skills to run their own proposition in-house. But this may change over time and firm Y may decide to set up its own, what stops the firm in question from taking some or all what they have learnt from firm X, even where there is a NDA in place?

I am not an IP expert (just a guy who asks the questions) and I am an interested to know what you think! Is there anyone out their who has IP protection on their proposition or considering doing so? Is it a non-starter?