How to Protect Your Startup’s Intellectual Property

pirate-flag-1024x819When you start a business, protecting your intellectual property (IP) should always be a major focus.  In the pre-internet era, IP wasn’t always a primary concern. Businesses were more about tangible goods and services, and information traveled “slowly” via mediums like newspapers and TV broadcasts. Today, everything has changed drastically, and protecting your intellectual property is a necessity.

These days, new businesses emerge onto the scene at lightning speed due to lower barriers to entry and greater accessibility to information, both of which are provided by the Internet. Competition is more prevalent in every industry because your competitors have the ability to reach your potential customers all around the globe, making geographic barriers to the distribution of goods and services almost non-existent. As a result, companies must do whatever possible to protect themselves if they are to survive and eventually thrive.

One major way you can protect your company and ensure it’s on the right track to grow and succeed is to protect your intellectual property.  Almost anything your company produces can potentially be intellectual property subject to protection against competitors in some way, from your company name and logo, to your products themselves, to your content about your products, and more.

Below is a basic guide to the major types of IP your company likely owns, and the steps you can take to protect it and set your business on track for success.

How to Protect Your IP From Employees and Contractors

There are some very basic documents you should always have in place to protect your intellectual property from being stolen by employees, independent contractors, and others that you may work with. The major ones are invention assignment agreements, NDAs, and employee handbooks.

Invention Assignment Agreements

An invention assignment agreement basically states that all ownership rights in anything the employees develop are automatically assigned to the company. This helps avoid any ownership discrepancies.

Non-Disclosure Agreements

NDAs are important, especially for people outside the company like independent contractors or consultants, which may become aware of confidential information in the course of work performed for the company.

Employee Handbooks

Employee handbooks are great for laying out the expectations of employment, particularly the expectation that the company’s IP is not to be shared, disseminated, or stolen under any circumstances.

Together, these documents work nicely to protect your intellectual property from being taken and used by employees or independent contractors for their own financial gain or to partake in a competing venture.

How to Protect Your Brand

In a consumer-oriented business, your brand is sometimes your most valuable asset.  The brand is the one thing that customers associate with that gives you an edge over competitors with similar product or service offerings. The reason people choose pricier, name-brand products over off-brand ones of comparable quality is for the brand, and the brand alone. Therefore, protecting your brand should be a major component of your strategy for protecting your IP.

Trademarks

The major way to protect your brand is to register a trademark with the USPTO.  You should register trademarks for each individual aspect of your branding, from the company name, to the logo, to the slogan(s), to individual products with unique names, and more.  This will insure that no competitor can use similar branding or product names in an attempt to steal your customers.

How to Protect Your Content

Content generation has become an increasingly important part of a good marketing strategy in today’s social-networking-oriented culture. The more content you can generate, the more “likes,” “shares,” and views you will get and ultimately the more eyeballs you will drive to your website. And we all know more eyeballs on your website means more sales of your products.

But, you definitely don’t want to do all the hard work of generating content and risk having it stolen and used by competitors. So content protection is another key aspect of protecting your intellectual property.

Copyrights

Technically, you are the registered owner of any content you create and publicize, but it doesn’t hurt to get added protection by registering a copyright with the US copyright office. Also, be sure to use the appropriate documentation for content produced by employees or contractors (explained above) to avoid discrepancies over ownership.

How to Protect Your Products

Your products themselves are the lifeblood of your business, and so it should come as no surprise that protecting them against competitors is a good idea. There are a number of ways to protect your products, among them being patents, trade secrets, and trademarks.

Patents

Patents essentially grant you an exclusive right to benefit commercially from your product for a 20 year period. However, patents are only granted for products and inventions that are unique, novel, and “non-obvious” in light of existing products, so it’s not always feasible to get a patent. Consult with a patent attorney to determine whether your product might be patentable.

Trade Secrets

In the case that your product is not patentable, but some aspect of it is still unique and not generally known to the public, there are still ways of protecting it, primarily by keeping it secret from competitors. For example, KFC’s “secret blend of spices” or Coca-Cola’s exact recipe are referred to as “trade secrets.” To properly protect a trade secret, you need to keep it a secret. So, taking all the steps mentioned above for protecting IP from employees and contractors would be a great way to start.

More On Trademarks

Finally, trademarks are a good way of protecting your products names’ if they are uniquely associated with the products, as mentioned before. A good example of a trademarked product name would be a Big Mac from McDonald’s or a Whopper from Burger King. No one else in the burger business can use those specific names for their burgers because they are registered trademarks. Consult with an IP attorney to determine whether your products’ names can be trademarked.

Conclusion

Developing a good strategy for how to protect your intellectual property should be a major part of your startup business plan. Each business is unique and will have different types of IP, products, and other assets that can be protected in different ways. So, it’s usually a good idea to consult with an experienced intellectual property lawyer about how to set your business up for success by protecting your intellectual property from day one.

Written By Aaron George

Aaron is the co-founder of LawKick.com – an online marketplace for legal services. LawKick is creating a platform where consumers can get bids from local lawyers on a wide variety of legal services (including patents, trademarks, and more) for free.

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