For the past three months, I’ve been writing about intellectual property and how it relates to the technology and software we use in our day-to-day lives. Today we’ll wrap this series up with a few specifics, some things to think about, and an action or step you can take if think you may be at risk (or have an opportunity to protect something great).
Intellectual property falls into 4 key categories: Patents, Copyright, Trade Secrets, and Trademarks. We’re all aware of the prestige and cost that goes into obtaining a patent, but there’s often just as much importance to identifying and protecting proprietary processes and marketing language in the small business world. If you create an awesome infographic that goes viral, what’s in it for you? If someone “reverse engineers” your secret recipe that makes your secret sauce amazing, is there anything you can do about it?
The laws of intellectual property are much more complicated than I have the knowledge to write about (or you have the interest to read), but it’s important to think about what we’ve produced that falls under it, and also what we are using that may be protected under someone else’s rights. Here are a few “quick tips” that you may want to consider for common situations we as business leaders find ourselves in.
- Research Early. Got a new business, product name, or phrase you want to use? Look it up on uspto.gov and Google it. If someone else has already camped out on your name or phrase (especially if they’re in the same line of work as you), proceed carefully, and if it’s really important, get legal advice. Using a name or phrase protected by someone else (either through a formally registered trademark ® or informal existing usage) can lead to confused customers, a cease and desist complaint, or formal legal action.
- Don’t Get Lazy. We all know how easy it is to “right click and save” an image off of the web that would work perfectly in a newsletter or on our website. Take it from a guy who got in a hurry one time and received a nastygram in the mail – it’s not worth the shortcut. Make sure you have the rights to use the images and text you use in your materials and keep track of where they came from.
- Get Help When Needed. I sometimes dread calling my attorney for advice. I know the clock starts ticking right away, but the cost of the services I receive has always been well worth it. Whether they’ve helped me with a dispute after the fact or putting an agreement together that will last for years, don’t be afraid to get professional help when you’ve got something new to get off the ground.
Intellectual Property law is not for the faint of heart, but it’s worth paying attention to. Your business may have some very valuable assets in this area, and whether you are simply protecting them or valuing them as part of your business’ worth, it’s well worth understanding and taking proactive care of.
Written by Chet Cromer for publication in the Business Leader