When you see or hear the abbreviation “IP,” it stands for Intellectual Property. IP is a key asset in a small business. Simply put, intellectual property is the ownership of concepts, processes and ideas, as opposed to physical property which characterizes a tangible asset. IP is fast becoming the major delineator among business owners who are competing for market share and customers.
There are four basic types of IP that small businesses often rely on.
This category encompasses everything from literary and artistic works to video and audio recordings to architectural drawings and computer code. Although a copyright is the most common form of IP, it does not cover ideas or concepts unless they are written down, creatively rendered, or recorded in some other fashion. However, you can not copyright a book title unless it’s a book series. Though technically speaking, you don’t have to register a copyright in order for it to be valid, doing so is relatively inexpensive and gives you more solid legal footing should a dispute ever arise.
While copyrights focus mainly on creative works, trademarks protect anything that is related to branding. Things that can be trademarked include company symbols (like McDonald’s golden arches), names (like the Super Bowl), or logos (like the blue and white F for Facebook) – as long as it is distinctive (for instance, the name “AAA Plumbing” probably couldn’t be trademarked). Trademarks can be filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for a few hundred dollars or a bit more if you utilize a lawyer.
These days, patents are the least common types of IP among small business owners. That’s because patents only apply to invented products, processes, and methods which are determined to be “novel,” “non-obvious,” and “useful” according to federal statutes. Also, the patenting process with the USPTO can take months or years and cost thousands of dollars, and it always involves securing the services of a patent lawyer.
This is a more nebulous classification which covers any type of process, recipe, formula, or design that gives your business a competitive advantage (like a family secret pie recipe, your unique 3D printing process, or Coca-Cola’s secret formula). Here’s the problem: the government doesn’t provide any registration process for trade secrets (which would defeat the purpose, after all), so it’s up to the small business to restrict access to its trade secrets. Legal relief only comes if the IP is leaked or stolen (which is theft) or an employee violates a non-disclosure agreement (which is a breach of contract).
Intensely Protect Your IP
Though the process for safeguarding or registering various forms of IP can differ depending on the company and the context, here are some general guidelines for how to protect your business:
Do your homework. Identify your IP, categorize it properly, and know your rights and limitations.
Don’t procrastinate. The USPTO operates on a “first to file” system, so even if you come up with the idea first, you’re out of luck if someone else registers it with the USPTO before you do.
Seek expert advice. For complex IP types like patents and trademarks, hiring a who specializes in IP law to help you navigate the process.
Monitor your IP rights. Once you have registered your IP, it’s up to you to watch out for infringements; the government won’t do it for you.
Handle disputes wisely. If you find someone using your IP improperly, don’t automatically run to the courthouse. Consider sending a notification letter to the perpetrator; or if the revelation might actually boost your business, it may be prudent to ignore it altogether.
Overlooking your IP could have negative ramifications for your business. But don’t wait to find out you’re wrong by watching a competitor leverage your creative ideas or logo to make money for their business. When it comes to IP, Prevention is worth a pound of cure.
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