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Think your idea is unique and original? Think again. Our Start-Up Legal Expert suggests doing your homework before taking your idea to market.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Q: My partners and I are in the planning phase of a business that's similar to an existing business where they provide the stuffed animal shells and the kids assist in stuffing their own cuddly stuffed animals. How do I determine if a process has been patented or if it can be?

A: To find out if a patent you want is available, check the federal government Web site

For an excellent overview of what is and isn't patentable, I recommend Patent It Yourself (Nolo Press) by David Pressman, which is available in most public libraries. This book provides a good overview of patents, trademarks and copyrights as well as sample forms and other useful material.

After you've done some preliminary reading and Web searching, I suggest a visit to the local Small Business Development Center (located in most colleges or universities) where they can review the issues with you at no charge. Also, they can probably provide an attorney referral. This is a somewhat complex legal area, and you're certainly wise to do your homework before investing time and money in starting your business.

Carlotta Roberts has a J.D. degree from Atlanta Law School. Having worked in the areas of business organization, contracts and employer/employee relations, she's been a consultant to small-business owners since 1981. She worked as a staff attorney concentrating in employment law issues before joining the Small Business Development Center national network in 1986. Currently area director for the Kennesaw State University Small Business Development Center near Atlanta, she has developed two nationally recognized programs: The Cobb Micro Enterprise Council, which won the Vision 2000 award for small-business development in 1999, and the Franchise Institute, developed to provide assistance to franchisees.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.