Establishing and protecting intellectual property rights is essential for small business owners. With the rise of competition through the global market and the Internet, understanding intellectual property is more critical than ever.
Knowing the basics are important—simply put:
- Patents protect your inventions.
- Trademarks protect your product names and logos.
- Copyrights protect written words, pictures, or sculptures.
- Trade secrets are business secrets that you have to keep secret.
- Contractual agreements protect things that the other categories above might not be able to.
For example, if you develop a new computer hardware or develop a new method for treating a disease, you will likely need a patent. If you write a blog post or other article, you will need copyright protection. When you start advertising your product under a name or logo, you will need trademark protection. Trade secrets are often business secrets that cannot be disclosed and cannot be protected otherwise, such as the recipe for food and drinks (think Coca-Cola) or software source code.
Finally, contractual agreements can be used to share one’s ideas with others (often individuals) without jeopardizing that information. Such agreements, often called confidentiality agreements or non-disclosure agreements, can be used if one needs to consult an expert for advice on how to proceed. An appropriate agreement can ensure that the expert does not hand the details of your new product to a competitor of yours.
For small-business owners, it’s worth the time and effort to secure these intellectual property rights early. While the protection may not be apparent immediately, they can be crucial once your business takes off.
Take, for example, one of my clients who, two years into his business, suddenly found out about competitors who had copied the packaging, look, and feel of his product. Fortunately, he had secured the crucial components of intellectual property like trademarks, trade dress, and web addresses after founding his company. We sent a letter on his behalf, and the problem was resolved.
If you have found out that your intellectual property is being used without your permission, contact an attorney, who will probably start by drafting a letter notifying the offending party of the infringement and requesting that it stop using your intellectual property. If that does not work, then you may decide to seek legal action.