INVENTING

How Business Ideas Get Stolen

What every business owner needs to know about protecting valuable intellectual property.
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I am often asked do I need a trademark for my slogan? Can I patent my idea? How do I keep others from copying seminar materials that I have written? Well, here’s a primer for what all small business owners should know to protect their valuable intellectual property assets. 
 
First, you need to know what the various forms of intellectual property are and how they can help you protect what is yours.

Trademarks are your brand identifiers. They tell consumers who produced the product (e.g., Coca Cola used for soda) or who is providing the service (e.g., McDonalds for restaurant services). They can include any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination used, or intended to be used, in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods or services of one manufacturer or seller from goods manufactured or sold by others, and to indicate the source of the goods. In short, they are the way the consumer identifies what they are buying and who is providing the goods or services behind what they purchase.
 
Patents, generally speaking, protect inventions that are useful, original, and an improvement upon an existing machine or invention. Today they can be used to protect everything from new and unique computer components to specially engineered geniuses of plant species. There is even a statute that allows for the protection of unique manners or inventive manners of transacting business know as a business method patent. So the easiest way of thinking about patents is that they protect inventions.
 
Copyrights protect original works of artistic expression including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. They include protection for books, articles, music, lyrics, plays, screen plays, scripts, dance routines, works of art, statutes, movies, television broadcasts, albums, CDs, and even components of a web site. A copyright gives the author of the work at issue the exclusive right to reproduce the artistic creation.
   
At this point most people ask what do they need to do to protect their trademarks, patents, and copyrights from others using the same without permission (i.e., infringement). The answer depends.
 
Trademarks generally exist from the moment you start using your trademark in commerce or interstate commerce.  Registration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is not required to acquire trademark rights but it is highly recommended to deter others from infringing upon your trademark and quite useful should you ever be required to enforce your rights in the same.
 
Patents are a creature of statute and must be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to receive protection.
 
Copyrights are, to some degree, for registration purposes, are a hybrid between patents and trademarks. Copyright protection exists in a protected work from the moment the work is created. However, in order to enforce a copyright it is generally the rule that a copyright registration from the U.S. Copyright Office must first be attained.
 
And there’s a brief overview of the distinctions between the three major forms of intellectual property protection all small business owners should be aware of to protect their business’s intellectual property assets. As always, if you have further questions on the same a qualified professional specializing in the specific area in which you seek information should be consulted.

Last updated: Dec 15, 2011

MATTHEW SWYERS | Columnist | Founder, The Trademark Company

Matthew Swyers is the founder of The Trademark Company, a Web-based law firm specializing in protecting the trademark rights of small to medium-size businesses. The company is ranked No. 138 on the 2011 Inc. 500.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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