Trademarks, copyrights and patents aren't just for big corporations. Everything from your company's name to its management style is worth protecting.
Your most valuable real estate may be your intellectual property -- a name, a process, or something else so unique that it's worth protecting. Determine whether you have such assets that need protection and which type of protection is necessary so you can secure your legal rights.
Creating a company or product name, slogan, design, or even a sound or smell that is so identified with a company's brand are assets that can be trademarked. You aren't required to register a trademark, but doing so gives you the presumption of ownership, which means you have the exclusive right to use the mark or license it for 10 years, with 10-year renewals. Unauthorized use of your mark can entitle you to damages.
A trademark is shown by displaying the symbol '„¢; once federal protection is obtained, the symbol ® can be used.
Copyright protection isn't limited to the arts and can extend to Web sites, computer software, architectural designs and even recipes and formulas if accompanied by substantial literary explanation. You can't copyright information that is common knowledge and has no original authorship, such as height and weight charts and public documents.
Previously thought of only in connection with inventions (Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents for inventions such as the electric light bulb, phonograph, and motion picture camera) and medications, today patents can be used to obtain financial advantage for creating processes as well. Examples: Burpee's patents for asexual reproduction of plants, culinary inventions (printing pictures of food on edible paper), and even tax strategies (although Congress may soon restrict this last class of patenting). Patents cannot be obtained for an idea or suggestion; there must be some technical merit worthy of protection.
Application and Fees
Obtaining a patent for an invention gives the owner the exclusive right to make, use, or sell the invention for a set number of years (usually 17 years from the date the patent is granted or 20 years from the filing, whichever is longer). During the patent process, show the public that you're in the process of filing by displaying "Patent Pending" or "Patent Applied for."
Once you believe you have something worth protecting and determine which type of protection is appropriate, move ahead. Learn about your rights for IP property at:
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (www.uspto.gov). Patent fees can be pricey -- there are fees for a search, an examination, maintenance fees, and various miscellaneous fees that can total several hundred dollars or run into the thousands. The basic trademark application filing fee is $310 ($155 for a "small entity"), though there are many additional fees.
Copyright applications are filed with the Library of Congress. The basic registration fee per work is $45. You should note that this protection is only valid within the U.S. To protect your IP overseas, you'll need to take additional action.
Because IP property is so valuable, it's usually wise to invest in the assistance of a knowledgeable attorney. While not legally required, rely on an attorney to advise you and help you secure your legal rights.
After you receive legal protection for your IP property, it's up to you to monitor that your rights aren't being violated (i.e., someone is using your trademark without your permission). Police the Internet and send "cease and desist" letters to violators. If you fail to protect your trademarked brand name, for example, and allow it to fall into generic use, you'll lose your rights.
Last updated: Jan 3, 2008
BARBARA WELTMAN is an attorney and a trusted professional advocate for small businesses and entrepreneurs. She is the author with such titles as J.K. Lasserâ€™s Small Business Taxes and Smooth Failing, and she contributes regularly to American Express OPEN and SBA.gov. Her articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal and U.S. News and World Report. Weltman is also the publisher of Idea of the Day and monthly e-newsletter Big Ideas for Small Business at www.barbaraweltman.com and hosts radio shows and podcasts, including Build Your Business radio. She has been named one of the 100 Small Business Influencers in the U.S. for the third year in a row. @barbaraweltman