From the February 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

Once someone comes up with a great idea, mistrust and suspicion of others usually follow. And for good reason: You've got something others could steal from you. How can you protect yourself against would-be partners looking to rip you off? There are numerous sources you can turn to for help.


Tomima Edmark is the inventor of the TopsyTail and several other products and is author of The American Dream Fact Pack ($49.95), available by calling (800) 558-6779. Questions regarding inventions and patents may be sent to "Bright Ideas," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614.

Federal Trade Commission

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a government agency that accepts written complaints from consumers and will investigate a company if enough complaints are filed against it. Complaints should be sent to the Correspondence Department, Federal Trade Commission, Sixth and Pennsylvania Aves. N.W., Washington, DC 20580.

The FTC also has the power to enforce the Freedom of Information Act. If you submit a written request for any public document, such as a company's filings with the state or records of court proceedings, the FTC will provide a copy to you if it has not been exempted by law. Include in your request the company name, the product or service they provide, and a requested time frame for receiving the document. The FTC should send you a written response within 10 working days. For more information, call the FTC hotline at (202) 326-2222. Requests for documents should be sent to the Deputy Executive Director for Planning and Information, Federal Trade Commission, Sixth and Pennsylvania Aves. N.W., Washington, DC 20580.

Attorneys

It's an unfortunate fact that business today is fraught with legal potholes. It's therefore a good idea to find an attorneys you can turn to when needed. In the beginning, look for someone skilled in the art of patent protection. Known as intellectual property attorneys, this type of legal advisor can assist you, step by step, with the patent and trademark filing processes, patent searches, patent law issues and more. An attorney can also act as your intermediary, speaking with third parties for you, if you are unable or unwilling to do so.

To find a reputable intellectual property attorney, get a referral or contact the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) and ask about an attorney's status. The PTO's office of Enrollment and Discipline provides information about the status of licensed patent agents (attorneys registered to practice before the PTO). Contact the PTO at (800) 786-9199 or visit its Web site at http://www.uspto.gov

The Internet

You can find just about anything on the Internet, using any one of dozens of search engines. If the company you're looking up doesn't have a Web site, however, take heed: These days, any company without a Web presence is either too poor to afford one or woefully behind the times.

Better Business Bureau

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is a helpful resource for entrepreneurs who want to check out a particular agent or company. But many people don't understand what the BBB really is or how it operates. Companies pay membership fees to be a member of the BBB and must meet certain standards in order to be accepted. When a complaint is filed against any company, the BBB informs that business. The company is then given 30 business days to resolve the problem. If the complaint is not resolved, the problem goes on the company's record. The BBB can even rescind a problem company's membership. When you request a report on a company, the BBB doesn't tell you the total number of complaints filed, only the number of unresolved complaints. Thus, the information you receive isn't the whole story, but it's a good place to start. To check a prospective company, call the BBB in the city in which the business is located.

Dun & Bradstreet

Another information resource is Dun & Bradstreet (D&B). D&B is a business reporting service and, for a nominal fee, will provide you with information on most companies.

D&B offers several types of reports at various prices. They include such information as a company's legal history, operations data and payment history. For more information, call D&B at (800) 879-1362, ext. 9712, or visit its Web site at http://www.dnb.com

Nonprofit Organizations

There are many nonprofit organizations that can help you in your research. They're a great resource and many times will help you for free or for a small fee. Finding groups in your area is as simple as contacting your local chamber of commerce. Some groups provide a way for inventors to gather and exchange information, give advice, and get together to trade ideas.

The SBA frequently offers workshops and seminars on a variety of topics, including inventing. The majority of its services are free. Most cities have SBA offices, so check the phone book for your nearest branch.

Funded by the SBA, the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) is designed to help small businesses. More than 12,000 retired executives in 389 chapters across the United States volunteer their time to help entrepreneurs. SCORE can put you in touch with a successful inventor who can give you business advice. To find the SCORE office nearest you, call your local SBA office or the national SCORE office in Washington, DC, at (800) 634-0245.

United Inventors Association of the USA

This nonprofit organization was created solely to help inventors. It publishes a monthly newsletter and can suggest people and companies to work with. The United Inventors Association of the USA (UIAUSA) also acts as a "watchdog" for inventors and entrepreneurs. It informs its members of current industry legislation and reports on fraudulent companies. The UIAUSA can also offer information on local inventors' organizations in your area. Contact the association at (716) 359-9310.

Patent Infringement Abatement Insurance

This is an alternative to consider if you've filed for a patent but don't have the financial means to defend yourself should someone infringe on your idea. Patent infringement abatement insurance pays for outside legal expenses incurred in enforcing your patent against infringers, and also pays for the cost of fighting others' attempts to invalidate your patent. The policy must be in place prior to litigation or knowledge of the legal controversy. To get a referral for an insurance provider, talk to your business insurance agent.

State Attorney General's Office

This state government office will send you a report listing any complaints filed against a particular company doing business in your state. If enough complaints are sent to the attorney general about a particular company, the office may launch an investigation into the company's business practices.

Westlaw & Lexis-Nexis

Most attorneys and law libraries have access to legal databases. Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis are two of the largest. For a fee paid online, these services allow you to search names of people or companies for a history of present and past lawsuits. If a court has awarded a settlement or judgment, this information is also provided. These services are useful when looking to see if a company is litigious or has been the subject of suits from others.

Some major public libraries and most law libraries have access to these services for free or for a small fee. You may want to have an attorney skilled in using these databases do the search for you, however. His or her search would take less time and probably be more thorough than if you tried to do it yourself. For more information, contact Westlaw at (800) 937-8529 or http://www.westlaw.com Lexis-Nexis can be reached at (800) 356-6548 or http://www.lexis-nexis.com

U.S. Customs Service

Once you're awarded a patent, trademark or copyright, record it with the U.S. Customs Service to get help blocking illegal, imported knockoffs. Counterfeit goods most often come through California, Florida, New York and Texas. For more information, contact U.S. Customs at (202) 927-6724, or visit http://www.customs.ustreas.gov

Picking good partners to get your invention to market is a skill mainly learned through trial and error, but these resources can give you the information you need to get a head start.