Protecting Your Intellectual Property as a Small Business
Whether you are running a small artisan business or tech-focused start-up, your intellectual property is likely why most of your clients choose to hire or purchase goods from you. Securing your companies intellectual property may seem like a daunting task considering many small business owners also have to navigate complex issues such as securing capital, building a unique and sustainable brand, finding health insurance, and hiring the right employees. However, no matter how large or small your product or service ideas are, it is vital that you protect this proprietary knowledge or risk having another entity copy you, thus, minimizing what makes your company special.
With knowledgeable and experienced legal assistance, securing a trademark, copyright, patent, or trade secret rights can be a fairly easy task that can protect your ideas and help secure your financial future.
Why Protect Your Intellectual Property
Protecting intellectual property is an essential part of running a successful business, big or small. This is true now more than ever before as intellectual property theft has become extremely common as the online marketplace continues to expand. Just a few decades ago, someone would have to come directly to your store to copy your designs. This type of theft was most common in large companies.
However, now all people have to do is go to your website and do basic research on your target audience to see if copying your invention is worth their time. This new type of intellectual property theft is much more common in small businesses as the thieves believe that a smaller company may not find out about the theft or may not have the resources to bring forth a formal lawsuit.
Thus, to mitigate the effects of intellectual property theft on your business, it is vital that you register a trademark, apply for a patent or copyright, and implement organizational safeguards to protect your business secrets. By taking these preventative measures, if you ever need to defend your product or service in court, you will already have the legal means in place to quickly resolve the issue. This is true not only for protecting against others stealing your product but also ensures that another company cannot falsely accuse you of intellectual property theft.
Additionally, trademarking, copyrighting, or patenting a product or service will help instill confidence in your customer base. Thus, allowing your company to thrive. For example, if you have a registered patent, your customers will know that you invented the product and thus have an unmatched level of expertise. This reputational boost can be critical to the success of small businesses that are just starting to gain recognition in a given industry.
Types of Intellectual Property
Below are the types of intellectual property protection available to businesses:
A trademark is any word, sign, symbol, or graphic that applies to the company that distinguishes you from similar competitors. The most common trademarks are logos or slogans. However, other unique product features such as the shape of a product container, the exact color of the packaging, or any other unique factor fall under trademark protection laws. If you see a logo, slogan, or other product that has “T M” or “r” next to it, this signifies that the distinction is trademarked. At the very least, every business should register their company name to protect the company’s reputation and ensure that no other entity can directly confuse possible customers.
There are two ways to show that your company has trademark protection. The first indicator is the “tm” symbol which claims an unregistered or common law trademark. While easy to receive, this type of trademark offers limited legal protection. The second way to register a trademark is to fill out an application through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This course of action offers more legal protections and allows you to easily submit a trademark claim should you need to take legal action against another entity.
Copyrights protect original creations most commonly in the form of words or images. These items typically include photos, books, paintings, speeches, drawings, and musical recordings. Furthermore, once copyright is given to a specific work, the creator of the work has the exclusive right to determine how to use or reproduce the work. Understanding copyright law is important for small businesses even if they are not in the business of creating original works. The reason for this is that if a business uses an image that has copyright protection without the creator’s consent, the business could face a penalty of up to $10,000.
Patents protect chemical formulas, new machines, articles of manufacture, or processes. This is the most complex type of intellectual property protection as you cannot patent a business, but you can patent a method of doing business as long as it meets the specific requirements. Here is a shortlist of the five common reasons why a business may receive a utility patent. A chemical formula such as a drug formula or cleaning solution. A machine such as a photocopier or a computer. An article of manufacture such as a phone charger or pencil holder. A new process or method such as a product packaging system or computer software. Finally, an improvement to a current invention that fits into one of the first four categories.
Patents are the most complex and difficult intellectual property protection. Furthermore, to obtain protection, an invention must be new as well as non-obvious to a person in the same field. If a product does receive a patent, the patent will last 20 years on the specific product or process. However, it typically takes about 2 years from the time you file a patent until the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will grant you this protection.
Trade Secret Rights
This is the least formal and simplest form of intellectual property protection. In most cases, trade secret rights just mean that you make individuals sign a non-disclosure agreement or confidentiality agreement. This applies when you share a process, code, method, or other proprietary information with them. Furthermore, whatever you share with the individual must separate you from your competition. Additionally, this information must put your business at risk if shared with competitors or the public.
How to Effectively Protect Your Intellectual Property
When dealing with intellectual property, it is vital that you receive experienced legal guidance. This ensures that your ideas will be properly protected. Large corporations may have intellectual property legal teams with the sole goal of protecting the company’s intellectual property. However, most new or small businesses will instead hire an intellectual property lawyer and keep this individual on retainer.
Keeping an intellectual property lawyer on retainer is vital to your success. The reason for this is that the individual can produce valuable insights into the industry landscape. Additionally, by constantly working with the company, the lawyer can become comfortable with your company’s products and procedures. From this familiarity, a lawyer can more efficiently register additional intellectual property protections than the first application. A final benefit to having an intellectual property lawyer on retainer occurs if someone breaches your intellectual property protection. If this occurs, the lawyer can immediately work on a case to stop the breaching party and seek financial damages.
Misconceptions about Intellectual Property Protections
Many companies believe that intellectual property protections are only for large established corporations. However, even companies that have not officially opened can receive intellectual property protection for their products or services. As long as the product, service, or process has an originator, these ideas can receive intellectual property protection. This is true no matter if they were thought of at a kitchen table or by a team of inventors. Thus, once you decide to present your idea, you must take the necessary steps to protect your idea from competitors.
Contact Our DC Law Office for More Information
Finally, for more on protecting your intellectual property as a small business, contact us at 202-803-5676. You can also directly schedule a consultation with one of our skilled attorneys. Additionally, for general information regarding business law, check out our blog.