Top Secrets

The newest way to keep trespassers off your intellectual property.

By David Doran

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

To an entrepreneur, nothing is more valuable than an original idea, be it a new business plan, a product design or even the look of a Web site. And like any other precious object, these ideas must be protected lest they somehow find their way into the clutches of unscrupulous competitors who would like nothing better than to call the fruits of your labor their own. Enter firstuse.com, an online registry for intellectual properties and other important documents.

In business since last October, the company's unique authentication process allows users to document text, graphic, video or audio files in any spoken or computer language without requiring them to divulge the actual contents of the files themselves. To register a document with firstuse. com, the user uploads a copy of the file to the Web site, which creates a `digital fingerprint,' a binary code representation of the file, which firstuse.com encrypts and saves on its database. Then, the company creates a time- and date-stamped digital registration certificate that can be viewed at firstuse.com by anyone seeking to validate the ownership of the file. Document registration can be done 24 hours a day, from any computer in the world with access to the Internet.

While the registration certificate is not a legally binding document, it has already been successfully used in U.S. courts as supplemental documentation of the ownership of intellectual property.

Obviously, there are other ways for you to legally document your intellectual property, ranging from filling out a copyright application to simply sending the document to yourself via registered mail, but firstuse.com contends that there is no other method as timely or as tamper-proof as an online registry. Even data that is stored on a private computer can be easily altered, says Craig Honick, co-founder of firstuse.com.

"Digital files can be backdated or manipulated in other ways," Honick says. "So when you bring them into court or [as evidence in] a dispute of some kind over documentation, someone can easily say `You could have done that last night and dated it two years ago.'"

Registering proprietary information with firstuse.com, which starts at $15 per transaction, may also serve to discourage lawsuits over intellectual property in the first place, contends Honick. "If [competitors] know that you have documentation registered with firstuse, they'll be less likely to challenge your ownership of an idea. It just won't be worth their time or money to try the case."

Honick believes the logo of firstuse.com stamped on documentation of intellectual properties will eventually have the same force as the copyright symbol does today.

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