How To Proactively Protect Your Intellectual Property Online
From a business perspective, intellectual property doesn't seem like such a massive thing to consider. Ideas have value, and protecting that value is typically done by registering the right to use the idea for profit. We can quickly see how profitable ideas can be, with some intellectual property rights cases setting for multiple millions in damages.
Historically, there has always been a need to protect one's intellectual property rights. Harvard Law School notes that the discussion about intellectual property doesn't stop at mere trademarks but can extend to things like athletic moves, among other elements. From a business perspective, intellectual property doesn't seem like such a massive thing to consider. Ideas have value, and protecting that value is typically done by registering the right to use the idea for profit. We can quickly see how profitable ideas can be, with some intellectual property rights cases settling for multiple millions in damages.
So why and when should businesses seek to protect their ideas? Companies sometimes have ideas or concepts that are integral to their business practices. These concepts might even give them a competitive advantage, making it crucial that they remain within the company's purvey. Having good ideas can also promote a business's growth and development. One of the best modern examples of this phenomenon is the burgeoning decentralized finance sector, where ideas can be worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, even before implementation. But how does a business protect its ideas? When is it prudent to avoid doing so? Let's find out.
Protecting an idea
Intellectual property has come a long way from its initial development. Although it initially only applied to products such as books or artwork, today's intellectual property definitions have expanded massively. A study published by Yale notes that over the past few decades, the expansion of what covers intellectual property has made it hard to figure out the difference between patents, trademarks and copyright law. Each of these serves its own purpose in registering protection for both an individual and a business.
Trademarks are supposed to protect certain words or design elements from being infringed upon by competitors. The best way to think of trademarks is as brand logos and mottos that typically appear on products. Branding is such a massive part of the advertising industry that it's obvious why trademarks are such a vital part of intellectual property rights. The most prominent example of trademark infringement is if a company were to copy another business's logo exactly. Counterfeiters run into the issue of this type of copyright infringement most often. However, trademark law also allows a company to take another to court over a trademark that resembles the business's logo. Elements such as matching design elements and colors where the two symbols can easily be mistaken for each other are also grounds for copyright infringement.
Patents are intellectual property protection granted to an inventor for an innovation that lasts only a certain period if not renewed. When a person or a company gets a patent, they can exclusively produce that product without fear of competition for a particular time. There are three different types of patents:
- Utility patents are granted for new or improved product processes. They remain active for up to 20 years after the initial filing but need the holder to pay maintenance fees over time.
- Plant Patent: Cross-breeding of plants means that there are several varieties of any particular species. Plant patents protect the intellectual property of a plant breeder for a species. The plant must be asexually reproducible to be eligible for a plant patent. This patent also holds for 20 years.
- Design Patent: Probably the type of patent most people associate with the term, a design patent deals with the look and shape of a manufactured product. Design patents last for 15 years from their initial issue and don't require maintenance fees.
Copyrights refer to original works of authorship and include art, writing and music. Once the copyright is in effect, only the owner and those they grant a license can display or perform the particular work. There's a notable exception with the fair-use doctrine, where someone can potentially reproduce part of a copyrighted work for demonstration or critique. Although an author does not have to register a work explicitly with the US Copyright Office, doing so within five years of its original publication helps to establish ownership in the event of a dispute. Copyright periods vary, with most copyrights remaining valid for up to 70 years after the author's death. When the copyright lapses, it enters the public domain and can be reproduced freely.
Trade secrets are typically applied to businesses and include processes or materials vital to the company's competitiveness that aren't known to the public. Companies usually take steps to protect their trade secrets by making employees sign nondisclosure agreements as part of their working contracts. Although trade secrets aren't as protected in the U.S. as patents, a company might not be so happy to file their secret as a patent. Patents are public knowledge, and if the competition knows what gives the business its competitive edge, they can pattern methodologies after it, reducing the company's competitiveness.
The best methodology for registering intellectual property rights
As a business, registering intellectual property rights is crucial in ensuring that no one copies the company's processes. Smaller firms especially should attempt to do this as soon as possible. With their limited resources, it's unlikely they'd win a protracted court batter for trademarks and copyrights. Knowing what a state allows regarding registering a copyright is vital to understanding when a business can do so. Some states allow for trademark registration before a company even begins operating. Other essential registrations such as software code and publication should be done as soon as possible to avoid competitors picking up on it. Speaking with a patent attorney about registration is the best option for innovators and inventors.
When intellectual property protection doesn't matter
Are there times when intellectual property registration doesn't matter? If the business doesn't produce an innovative product, there is no need to register the design. However, having a branded trademark attached to all sales will enhance the visibility of the company. Within local small businesses, registering the business name should be done as soon as possible. If a larger competitor shows up and claims the title, the company with the registered business name will take precedence. In many cases, registering the business early avoids potential litigation and costly lawsuits.
When should business owners register their trademark?
Protecting the business' ideas requires going through the proper channels. Whether it's a publication, a logo, a motto or a product, knowing what sort of intellectual property rights it falls under helps pinpoint how it should be registered. Business owners should register a trademark to ensure that no one else steals their ideas or their processes. Sometimes, it's all that's standing in the way of success and failure. Intellectual property infringement is sometimes even worse than being robbed, even though the outcome is essentially the same.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor