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Intellectual property refers to business ideas and to works or processes that stem from those ideas. Examples include company logos, original literary works, and manufacturing methods. Trademarks, copyrights, and patents are the three main ways to protect intellectual property in the United States.
Intellectual property (IP) protection is a largely misunderstood, but very important, part of running a business. Your business’s intellectual property not only gives it a competitive advantage, but can also define its very nature. The ideas that give rise to your business’s products or services are what allow you to make money, hire employees, and operate your company.
Theft of IP can be very debilitating to a startup or small business, so it’s important to understand what IP includes at the outset. That way, as your business grows, you will know what to seek legal protection for. Without a proper understand of IP, a competitor can take credit for your business ideas.
A company’s assets can generally be divided into two parts. On the one hand are physical assets such as a company’s equipment and inventory. On the other hand are more intangible assets, such as product prototypes and manufacturing processes. Traditionally, a company’s physical assets have been the most highly valued. However, the Digital Age places a premium on ideas and the ability to monetize those ideas. For that reason, business IP is becoming more and more valuable.
Here’s what a small business’s intellectual property typically includes:
Products are an important part of a company’s intellectual property. Utility Patents are arguably one of the better-known types of intellectual property protection. Effectively, once you think up and develop an invention, you can file a patent application with the USPTO. If approved, you’re granted the right to choose who can make, use, or sell your product for up to twenty years from the filing date. And, obviously, if you’re building a business around your invention, you should protect it with a utility patent.
Design patents are a slightly lesser known, but equally important, form of patent. These protect the unique appearance of a functional object. So if you sold soda and your bottle had a particularly novel and unique design, or you thought up an ornamental design for jewelry, you could file a design patent.
Your business’s reputation and its brand are inextricable. Branding is how a business distinguishes itself from the competition, and what brings in new customers. When you first started your business, you likely filed for a “doing business as” name, which keeps other companies in your county or state from using the same, or a similar, name. However, you can take this protection a step further if your business name is an integral part of your branding by filing a trademark.
You aren’t technically trademarking the name – rather, you’re registering a mark you use to distinguish your business in the market. The same protection can be extended to your logo, if you have one. Now, you have an automatic right to these marks once you start using them, so you don’t have to file anything with the USPTO if you do not want to, but registering them makes enforcement much easier.
Trade dress refers to the appearance of a particular product, its packaging and, in some cases, even the décor of a business. For example, a big yellow box with a red heart on it probably reminds you of Cheerios, and Starbucks has an interior design it uses in all of its stores. As long as that design is perceived as an identifying feature of whatever you’re selling, you have a right to it. And you can formally register that right with the USPTO, which will help you challenge any future infringement.
Like trademarks, you technically have a copyright to your small business website and the content on the site. You should include a copyright notice somewhere on the site to inform others of this right, but you don’t need to file anything if you don’t want to. However, if you ever want to file an infringement suit, you’ll normally need a public record of the material being infringed in order to collect statutory damages.
Even the marketing you use to sell your business’s service or product can count as intellectual property. Jingles have been used in marketing since the early twentieth century, when radio advertisements began to use simple compositions with hooks to distinguish and promote a product. Since they are unique, creative works, you have a copyright to the jingles you use in your marketing. The same goes for commercials you air on television or the radio, and tag lines you use in social media marketing. Any creative works put in a fixed, tangible form are copyright of their creator.
Obviously, a good portion of your business counts as intellectual property. Logos, names, ads, jingles, products, packaging, designs – as the creator of these unique features of your business, you have a right to use and distribute them. Patenting your inventions, and registering any trademarks or copyrights you have a claim to, can really help you protect your business.
Speak with a business attorney and review any intellectual property that you own. You’re never too small to be a victim of infringement. Protecting your IP helps you maintain your competitive advantage and cultivate a loyal customer base for your company.