Do you have an idea? Great. You can probably start a business with it. From crafty blogs to the latest apps, great ideas are spurring the creation of new businesses left and right.
But once you start your new business, you have to consider how you’re going to protect its most precious assets: intellectual property (IP).
Most modern business have more than one type of IP that must be protected – i.e., both the ideas on which the business is based and the brand that identifies the business itself must be protected. How you protect this IP depends on exactly how the IP is defined.
Before you can take steps to protect your IP, you have to first know which type or types of IP you have. There are four types of IP, three of which can be legally protected through the government.
The first type of IP is copyrights. Copyrights protect output like this very article educating you about IP. Copyrights also protect the creative output of artists such as designers and photographers. If you’re a blogger who posts creative work online, creating an artist’s statement – similar to the one at the bottom of this sewing website – is the first step in protecting your IP.
To further protect your copyrighted materials – like that spectacular design for your community’s new elementary school – you need to register them with the United States Copyright Office (USCO). The USCO maintains a library of information for registering your copyrights, including a full statement of copyright law and a digital portal for the registration process itself.
Registering copyrights has a relatively high return on investment: The fees are less than $40 per work registered. That’s a small prices to pay to ensure that your creative output is legally protected from being copied by others.
Did your big idea result in the next app that’s taking the world by storm? Then your IP not only needs a copyright for its code, but it also needs a patent for the final product – that shiny new app itself. Patents protect IP such as inventions, designs for machines, and processes that create products.
If your IP needs a patent as well as a copyright, you can file with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The USPTO guides you through the process of filing, including research into whether or not a patent for that product has already been filed.
The site also helps you understand the different types of patents, as they are not all created equal. The Provisional Application for Patent is a common form, and it gives applicants the option of filing without a formal patent claim. This patent lasts just 12 months and cannot be renewed, like many of the other patents.
Which type of patent you might need will again depend on the type of IP you want to protect. Utility patents will protect the way your new garage door idea will work; design patents will protect how that garage door will look. Plant patent are just that: they protect new species of plant developed by amateur and professional botanists. The costs of differing types of patents vary greatly.
Avert your eyes – you can’t see these.
Neither can anyone else, as long as you take steps to protect them. Trade secrets are IP defined as information or output that, as long as their secrecy is maintained, can give competitive advantage to an organization. For huge businesses like Micron Technologies, Inc., trade secrets are everything from formulas for products to designs for manufacturing plants.
For small businesses, a trade secret could be as simple as a customer list. These lists can be highly sought after in sales-based businesses, and the government will step in only if a claim of misappropriation has been made.
Here’s where your business’s brand comes into play. Trademarks are any symbols that distinguish your business from someone else’s. The design of a logo – even the color combination itself – can be trademarked.
As soon as you started your business you gave it a name, right? Did you search the USPTO’s Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) to make sure there wasn’t another business with the same or even a remotely similar name? This is where many a small business owner goes awry with IP. When a business owners fails to check on whether or not their name has already been used, they can commit trademark infringement without even realizing it.
Don’t forget to Google your business’s proposed name and all its variations. This can help keep you from stepping on trademarked toes.
Once your brand has cleared a path through the TESS, the best way to be sure you can trademark your name and all its peripherals is to check with an attorney who specializes in IP. Registering a trademark will cost at least $300, so you’ll want to weigh the cost of the registration against consultation with an attorney.
Many businesses have multiple types of IP. Knowing which are which is the key to protecting them. When in doubt, research your big ideas and your new brand! Don’t lead your business into harm’s way by accidentally infringing on someone else’s IP or failing to safeguard your own!
Note: This article is intended as an introduction to the process of protecting intellectual property. It does not constitute legal advice. You should definitely consult with an attorney to help you navigate the world of intellectual property!