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Scared of Intellectual Property Theft? Protect Your Work

You've spent hours of work on an idea only to have your work and trade secrets stolen. Follow this simple guide to avoid intellectual property theft and protect your assets.

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You've spent untold hours and substantial sums of money developing your company's secret sauce, proprietary source code or magic pills. But if you haven't taken the proper steps to keep those gems from being stolen or exploited, your investment may go up in a cloud of virtual smoke. In the blink of an eye, you could lose all your work.

If you've created anything — software, music, stage plays, or tequila — you must invest time and money to protect your intellectual property (IP). An IP attorney can help you register your proprietary trademarks and get patents for your novel processes and inventions. But a lot of your IP doesn't require expert services.

Related: The Basics of Protecting Your Intellectual Property, Explained

If you have a basic grasp of your creative assets, such as your words, drawings, music and code, you already have the tools to start looking out for yourself.

Here are some basic ground rules for protecting your IP.

Copyrights

Your IP security comes down to copyrights for creative works like art, music, books and even source code. Copyright protects original forms of expression. It doesn't cover the ideas, processes or formulas that underlie the expression. So if you write a novel about a teenager who does plastic surgery, nobody else can copy the words you use to tell that story, but the story itself is fair game.

is just a part of the copyright equation, however. Unless you've put your original work into a "tangible medium of expression," you could still lose what you've created. The words coming out of your mouth and the melodies you play on your keyboard are easy pickings for unscrupulous or opportunistic copiers. You need to take the extra step to make them tangible: put them down on paper or make simultaneous audio or video recordings.

Copyrights are ideal because, asides from making sure your works are original and tangible, you don't need to do anything else. Copyrights exist from the moment of creation. You should, however, seriously consider registering your works with the U.S. Copyright Office. It's easy to do this online, the fee is small and registration entitles you to more significant damages if someone infringes your copyright. A court will ultimately decide if your work is original, but you can ensure that copyrights are in place.

Related: Don't Lose Your Business: Protect Your Trade Secrets

Trade secrets

You probably have other business assets that need protection but don't fall into the copyright bucket. These could be processes that give you an edge in manufacturing, lists of your best customers or secret formulas that make your food tastier than your competitor's food.

Regardless of what they are, these secrets have value precisely because nobody else knows them. If your competition or the general public got their hands on these assets, you'd probably be out of business.

These are your trade secrets, and you should do everything possible to keep them secret. Think of one of the world's most valuable trade secrets: the formula for Coca-Cola. Imagine what would happen if that fell into the wrong hands.

Unlike trademarks and patents, which require the 's stamp of approval, trade secrets require no legal action on your part. Unlike copyrights, which have a long but ultimately limited duration, trade secrets last exactly as long as they remain secret — which could be forever.

On top of the expressive works that copyright will protect, you need to identify hidden gems that must stay out of the light. Your secret sauce and your strategic relationships should be well-kept secrets, shared within your company and with third parties only on a need-to-know basis. Your employees should acknowledge in writing their obligation to protect these assets, and nondisclosure agreements should bind outsiders.

If, despite your best efforts, a trade secret gets out, the damage could be irreparable. You can sue for damages, but the court must be convinced that you took all reasonable precautions to protect your asset. And monetary damages will never restore the secret that you've lost.

Related: 9 Affordable and Effective Ways to Protect Your Entrepreneurial Vision

Why does it matter?

Original works are worth protecting. If you are a writer, an artist or a programmer, your creative results are your bread-and-butter, and their theft would deprive you of their financial rewards and benefits. If you run a business, the unique processes and formulas you've developed set your company apart from the rest.

Whatever your product, process or artistic contribution to the world, unless you take appropriate precautions to protect your work, you could lose what you've spent a lifetime creating. Know what you have, make it tangible and control who has access. Protecting your IP is the same as protecting your business.

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