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Most entrepreneurs are very protective of their businesses. Entrepreneurs want to protect their assets, their employees, and their intellectual property. But intellectual property, unlike personal assets and employees, isn’t really a tangible thing. How do you protect an idea, concept or the overall representation of your business?
This is where the world of intellectual property law intersects with small business. Trademarks, patents, and copyrights can legally help you protect your unique business ideas and trade secrets, so that you can maintain an edge over competitors. These are different types of intellectual property protection, each suited for a different situation. Here, we’ll give you an overview of different ways to protect your business’s intellectual property.
Trademarks are used to protect your business’s logo, designs, symbols, phrases, or name. When you trademark a logo or other item, competitors can’t use these because consumers might get confused.
A trademark is your property. By registering a trademark, you have exclusive rights to use it, and no one else can infringe upon that right. With proper use and enforcement, trademarks will enforce the individuality of your business for an unlimited amount of time. However, keep in mind that it depends on the circumstances whether or not a competitor will be able to produce a mark or logo similar to yours.
For example, Amy’s Bakery in California and Amy’s Bakery in Idaho can both be registered as “Amy’s Bakery” as long as the two logos have different fonts, colors, or use a different image. But, there likely couldn’t be two Amy’s Bakeries in Idaho even if they used different fonts. The rule is that one trademark cannot tarnish another or bring about any sort of confusion.
Trademarks can also be a little extensive to register. You have to apply to the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) and wait a few months for the office to examine your mark and identify any problems. Gathering your application materials can be time consuming. After the initial examination, what you’ve submitted enters a 30 day waiting period where upon other companies are allowed to challenge your right to register. Only after all of that is the trademark yours.
Copyrights protect the rights creators have to their original works, protecting things like literature, music, drama, choreography, art, motion pictures, sound recordings, and architecture. Copyrights essentially give people the right to carry out certain operations on specific materials or products. Copyrights are similar to trademarks because they offer long-term protection. These terms begin right away, and last the whole life of the author plus an additional 70 years after his/her death.
To register a copyright you have to register with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration isn’t too complicated, but like a trademark, can be extensive. The first thing you should do when thinking about filing a copyright is check the copyright database to see if what you want to register is infringing on something already registered. As you can imagine, this can take a great deal of time, but it’s worth the effort if you can save some money by not sending in something that’s already been registered. After you’ve done your research, you have to fill out the form, pay a small fee, and send a copy of the work to register. Claims submitted online typically take six to nine months to resolve.
Patents work to protect the underlying ideas of the entrepreneur. Where a copyright protects the ways ideas are expressed, patent claims focus on the mechanisms, principles and components surrounding those ideas. Patents are the strongest of the laws protecting intellectual property.
Patent law is based on a very strict liability standard, making it a business owner’s strongest option for intellectual property protection. However, remember that patents have an expiration date. Design patents protect design, shape, configuration and appearance of any invention for 15 years, and utility patents that protect functional makeover and new inventions last about 20 years. The first company to file a patent gets the IP protection, so make sure you’re first to the gate.
To file a patent, keep a careful record of the details of your invention (the process as well as the finished result), make sure you qualify for protection (check to see if your invention is truly an original idea), assess the commercial potential (make sure you aren’t losing money), and, finally, file your application with the USPTO. You’ll need to be patient because going through the patent process can take anywhere from one to five years after filing your application.
No matter how you choose to protect your business, seeking the right form of protection is a big part of upholding a brand. Just think how different the world of business would be if another business had the right to use your logo, your name, or your invention. Not only would there be utter confusion for your customers, but your brand could be accidentally associated with a less-reputable brand thanks to a similar logo or name, giving you a reputation you didn’t earn. Now that you know your brand needs protecting, and you’ve seen the different forms of protection, decide what’s best for you and your business.
Trademarks, copyrights, and patents are the three main legal tools at your disposal for protecting your intellectual property. But there are other steps you should take to safeguard your business’s IP portfolio.
Here’s a summary of steps you can take to protect your intellectual property:
One last piece of advice to business owners is to find and hire a good trademark lawyer, copyright lawyer, or patent lawyer. Most lawyers handle all three. An IP attorney can help you figure out what IP you need to protect, submit applications to the USPTO or U.S. Copyright Office, and address IP violations from other companies.