How to Protect Intellectual Property

It often seems that a growing business with a good idea might as well have a target on its back when it comes to copycats. Consider how Groupon spawned a legion of daily deal sites and the success of FarmVille led to social games of every kind.

While you can’t prevent other people from taking the basics of a good idea and running with it, you can — and should — take steps to protect your intellectual property, branding and business share. Here are the basics every small business owner and entrepreneur should know.

3 Basic Ways to Protect Intellectual Property

1. Patents

What are they? A patent provides legal protection for an invention or process that is novel, non-obvious and clearly defined. Patents prevent others from making or marketing your idea for 20 years.

How do you get one? To receive a patent, you must file an application with The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. They don’t come cheap, and you may have to pay a filing fee, issue fee and maintenance fees as well as hefty legal fees should you hire a patent attorney to complete the paperwork on your behalf.

What if someone steals your patented idea? While a government office issues patents, it may be necessary to go to court to protect yours.

2. Copyrights

What are they? According to the U.S. Copyright Office, copyrights protect “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” In other words, the thoughts in your head are not copyrighted until you put them down on paper. Then, you can protect them for the remainder of your life plus 70 years.

How do you get one? Copyright exists the moment you write, record or otherwise create something tangible with your ideas. In addition, copyright extends to both published and unpublished works. That means your diary receives the same legal protection as the latest bestseller. For people who want an extra layer of protection, there is a voluntary copyright registration process available through the U.S. Copyright Office.

What if someone steals your copyrighted material? While your material may be used under “fair use” provisions of the law, it can’t be copied wholesale and without credit. In that case, you could go to court. For online theft, you could send a DMCA violation notice (named for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) to the ISP or website hosting the material and ask for its removal.

3. Trademarks

What are they? A trademark is a symbol, word, slogan or logo used to distinguish your brand or product from others.

How do you get one? If you are claiming a trademark for your business, you may do so by adding a TM after your mark. For additional protection, you may want to register your trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Doing so allows you to add a ® after your mark. For more detailed information, read this pdf file on the Basic Facts About Trademarks.

What if someone steals your trademark? If you think another business is purposely infringing on your trademark, you may wish to talk with an intellectual property attorney about possible legal action.

Intellectual property can be just as valuable, if not more so, than the inventory kept in a warehouse or retail store. Protecting your business brand is vital if you want your firm to stand apart from the competition and keep customers returning over time.

Maryalene LaPonsie has been writing professionally for more than a decade on topics including education, insurance and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Western Michigan University.

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