Think Fast

Protect Yourself

Before you spend too much money on an idea, be sure to protect it. Otherwise, a larger competitor can come into the market and take your business. Trademarks, patents and copyrights are the three methods of intellectual property protection under U.S. law.

Trademarks, which encompass names, slogans and visual images, are the most common form of protection you'll use when bringing a product to market fast. What makes trademarks so valuable is that they can be registered with an "intent to use" classification. This means you don't have to have a product developed and ready to sell; you just need to say you intend to use the trademark in the future. People started registering trademarks such as "Y2K 2000" and the "Official Millennium Candy" back in 1995 and 1996, long before anyone was ready to start making and selling a product.

Trademarks cost $245 each and can be obtained quickly--usually in a few months. Trademarks typically belong to the first person who registers them. Visual images can be trademarked, such as McDonald's golden arches, but in the case of onetime events, trademarks are typically done for phrases, such as "Countdown to the Millennium."

When Pella decided to move ahead with his product line, he did a trademark search to see which trademarks related to the year 2000 had been registered. Then he looked for catchy phrases like "Countdown Candle" and "Happy 2000" to register. He wouldn't have gone forward with his product if he hadn't been able to trademark a few good names or slogans.

Design patents, too, can be quickly obtained. Design patents protect a product's look, not its mechanical features. For example, Pella got a design patent for his baseball hat. The patent consists primarily of a drawing of a baseball hat with the Happy 2000 logo. A design patent would have also worked well for the foam "tomahawks" sold when the Atlanta Braves played in the World Series. The tomahawk had no unique mechanical features that could be patented, but it could get a design patent for its look.

A third way to establish property rights for a product you want to market fast is via a copyright, which protects works of literary or visual art. For example, a caricature of Jesse "The Body" Ventura could be copyrighted and used on T-shirts, stickers and gift items.

Registering domain names on the Internet is another profitable way to take advantage of a short-term event. Everything2000.com (http://www.everything2000.com/) is a Web site capitalizing on the millennium. The site chronicles activities related to January 1, 2000, and will probably make a bundle of money as the end of the year approaches. Register domain names with Internic (http://www.internic.net/cgi-bin/domain). The cost is $35 per year; you pay for two years upfront.

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This article was originally published in the August 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Think Fast.

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