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Protecting Your Intellectual Property

Protecting your intellectual property assets lets you maintain a competitive advantage and ensures that your hard work and financial investments are used to your business’s advantage. It also prevents others from benefiting from your efforts.

If you need to register a patent, design, trademark or plant variety, the USPTO website is where you should go.

The site has information and search tools to use as you prepare to apply for IP protection. For example, the USPTO Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) checks that the item you want to protect isn’t currently trademarked.

Main types of IP

Copyright

Sometimes you don’t have to officially apply for intellectual property protection as it exists as soon as you create it. If you’ve written a book, composed a song, filmed a movie, or painted a work of art, it will be protected by ‘copyright’ automatically. You’ll need to prove you’ve created it, but you don’t officially ‘apply’ for copyright. If you can, document what you created with a date (email a copy or photo to yourself) to prove when you created the work, to prove you were first.

Patents

Patents stop others from using, making or selling a certain invention for up to twenty years. A patent is an exclusive right granted by the Government that protects the concept or idea behind your product and will help protect new products or processes, the material a product is made from and the manner in which a product is made.

Design

Design patents are similar to patent protection, however, design relates to the visual appearance of an item, only protecting the external appearance of a manufactured item.

Trademarks

A trademark uniquely identifies your business among others. It could be a logo or a brand name.

Trademarks can include:

  • Words, like Nike’s ‘Just do it’ catchphrase
  • Logos, such as the golden arches of McDonald’s
  • Shapes, like Coca-Cola’s bottle design
  • Colors like the UPS’s Pullman brown
  • Sounds and smells such as the roar of the MGM lion.

A trademark protects your item, not the individual parts of it. Once you register your trademark, you may use the ® symbol alongside it but until then, you can ‘claim’ it by using the TM symbol.

Tips before you apply for intellectual property

Wait before you make your ideas public

It’s not a wise idea to discuss, publish, sell or demonstrate your invention or design in public before filing a patent or design registration application, as information ‘in the public arena’ can be hard to justify as yours. Make sure you have the right protection in place before telling the world about your great idea.

Use confidentiality agreements

Get legal advice to draw up a confidentiality agreement if you do need to declare your ideas to others. It may not prevent people from sharing your idea, but it’ll make them think twice and provide you with evidence to take (and win) legal action.

Ensure all employees, potential investors and other parties of interest sign it before you disclose any confidential information.

Be careful who you speak with

Before talking to another person about your idea, research their credentials thoroughly. Look on the Internet for information about their career and double check by speaking with a few of their previous clients or partners. It’s especially important if you’re seeking investment or pitching your idea to others.

Document everything

If you are ever drawn into a legal battle to prove you own the IP, it will help enormously if you have written and dated proof of everything relating to your ideas, how they were created and that you or the company owns the IP rights. It’s important if you have employees contributing to your idea that they sign a waiver that any IP generated is owned by you.

Have layers of information disclosure

Don’t hand over everything if you are presenting or pitching. Have a one-page outline of the general details, then provide more information as you gain confidence in the person you’re talking to.

Trade secrets and intellectual assets

A trade secret could be a formula, pattern, method, or process that’s used in your business and gives you a chance to get an advantage over your competitors. A famous example is KFC’s eleven herbs and spices recipe.

Intellectual assets are the things that you can’t ‘legally’ protect, for example, your business contacts and networks that provide referrals, your business know-how, knowledge of customer buying cycles, key staff and your customer database.

To protect these assets, it’s a blend of keeping some things secret (the formula to Coca-Cola isn’t protected, it’s a recipe kept in a safe), having staff or customers sign contracts or confidentiality agreements or documenting your processes which only a few know.

Protecting your IP overseas

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) helps businesses protect IP assets overseas. It’s a global forum site for intellectual property services, policy, information and cooperation.

Take a look at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) website to find out how to protect your IP overseas.

Summary

In the end, the last thing you want is for your IP to fall into the wrong hands. You don’t want your competitors profiting from your ideas and hard work, nor do you want disgruntled employees walking off with trade secrets. It’s often a good idea to talk to a lawyer who specializes in IP law, so you can be sure you have the right kind of protection for your IP.

List what is mission-critical to your business then document how to ensure these elements will remain an advantage to your business and confidential.