Protecting Your Intellectual Property
June 9, 2011
In today's market, intellectual property is often a company's most valuable asset. Even if you have developed the newest technology and the most innovative products, if your intellectual property is not properly protected you may be inviting your competitors to help themselves to your profits.
The better you understand the types of IP protection available, the better you can implement your business strategy and prioritize your time, effort and funds. Understanding the types of IP protection and what they protect can also save you the headache of unintentionally infringing someone else's intellectual property rights.
With all of the different types of intellectual property protection available, sometimes it's difficult to know where to start – so we'll start with the basics:
Copyright protection is more and more of a factor in today's business world. Copyright protection covers any original written material (books, screenplays, drawings, software, instructions, advertising materials, web pages, etc.), musical composition, sound recording, video recording, artwork, photograph, sculpture, or other work of art. A copyright notice is not required for the author to claim copyright protection. Copyright protection allows the author of the work to prevent other people from copying the work, and even from creating certain works that are based off of the original work.
Many functions of day-to-day business may involve copyrighted material – such as producing a webpage. It is important to remember that virtually any material found on the internet is protected by copyright. Your may still be violating someone else's copyright interests even if you change the work or add to it. Understanding copyright will help you avoid infringing someone else's IP.
Trademarks are used by almost all businesses. The goal of trademark protection is generally to make sure that two businesses are not using marks that are so similar that consumers might be confused about which of the businesses made or sold the goods or provided the services. Trademark protection is usually used to protect a brand name or logo, and it is one of the types of intellectual property that people are most familiar with – because trademarks are everywhere!
Some level of trademark protection is earned just by using a trademark, though significant additional protection is available through registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Patent protection is available for inventions that are new and "non-obvious." Though people generally think of "high-tech" companies having patents, even simple solution to everyday problems can result in valuable patents. Someone who has a patent has the right to stop other people from making, using, selling or importing the invention into the United States for a period of time (20 years from the date the patent application is filed). Having a patented product or process can prevent potential competitors from entering the market with an equivalent, and allows the first business to build up a reputation and a brand name, allowing it to maintain a competitive edge even after the patent expires.
To obtain patent protection in the United States, an application for a patent must be filed in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and the application will be examined by the USPTO to make sure that it really describes something that is new and non-obvious. Patent applications must be filed early on – within one year of the first public use, disclosure or sale of a product for protection in the United States. Most other countries require the patent application to be filed before ANY public use, disclosure or sale.
Trade secret protection is just like the name implies – if you keep it a secret, other people will not be able to use it! Trade secret protection is sometimes chosen instead of patent protection if the material being protected would be difficult to reverse engineer or recreate. A famous example is the recipe for Coca-Cola® soda.
Intellectual Property Transactions
Virtually all types of intellectual property can be bought, sold, licensed, and shared among different businesses. Sales or licenses can be broken up by geographic area, by the intended use or by other criteria that the parties agree to – and may involve payment of a one-time fee, payment of a continuing royalty, or the exchange of goods, services, or other intellectual property. Nearly all businesses operating today are involved in some type of intellectual property transactions. Some businesses engage in licensing or selling intellectual property as their primary business – like photographers, advertising companies, and other small inventors who do not have production capabilities – while others may engage in licensing or selling intellectual property in more limited transactions, like purchasing software licenses for the employees.
The attorneys at Varnum are available to help you understand what types of intellectual property your business has, how to best protect the intellectual property, and how to integrate an intellectual property strategy with your business strategy to maximize the value of the intellectual property that you create.