What New Entrepreneurs Should Know About Intellectual Property
By Hunter Amato — Guest Writer, Inland Empire Business Journal
Delving into the world of entrepreneurship can be a daunting task. The independence and freedom that entrepreneurship offers open up significant opportunities that cannot be found in a more standard workplace, but with more independence comes more responsibility. As an independent business, it is crucial to sort out the important legal aspects that companies have to deal with on a regular basis. Intellectual property law definitely falls into that category: complex, scary to some, but absolutely vital for entrepreneurs. Here, we break down some intellectual property basics, and how they affect you as a new entrepreneur.
Intellectual Property; What is it?
According to the World Intellectual Property Organization: “Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.” Obviously, “creations of the mind” is an extremely broad term, but IP law is actually a very broad field by necessity. As we will cover later, there are many different categories of IP that require different types of protections.
Physical property laws are pretty straightforward. If someone steals physical property, the victim suffers a loss and can claim damages. Intellectual property, on the other hand, is more complex. Theft of intellectual property doesn’t necessarily mean that the victim loses what they have. If someone steals your logo design, you still maintain possession of it.
In this case, however, intellectual property theft lessens the value of what you already have. Duplicate logos on the market can confuse customers and lead to brand incoherence. Copyright infringement can undercut the licensing profits of a creative artist. Stolen inventions undermine the research and development payoff of entrepreneurs, driving down incentives via competition.
IP violations can often be hard to prove as well. Most legal frameworks for protecting intellectual property require thorough documentation and disclosures of the work done since it is impossible to determine legally when someone had a mental breakthrough or initially thought of a concept. Even the boundaries between improving upon an existing invention and violating a previous patent can be hazy.
In the entrepreneurial field, intellectual property is one of the most valuable assets of any company. Startups exist because someone at the helm created or invented something useful and wants to manifest it into the market. Good ideas are what separate good companies from bad ones, and so it’s crucial to incentivize those ideas and protect them. That is where IP law and IP protections come in.
IP Law Categories
A broad range of intellectual property requires a broad range of IP laws. Let’s take a look at the four main categories of intellectual property in the United States: copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets.
A copyright grants protection to creative works of the mind. This can include writing, music, paintings, and other creative endeavors. Copyrights last for a long time—70 years after the death of the holder—and allow litigation in cases of infringement. This also enables the copyright holder to license their work for use by others and collect a royalty. Of course, fair use exceptions enable the use of copyright material for some not-for-profit purposes, including education.
Patents are the most significant category for new entrepreneurs. A patent allows a company to be the sole producer and seller of a specific invention or process for up to 20 years. This essentially grants a monopoly during that time span. Patents are crucial for entrepreneurs and inventors because they enable a realistic timeline for production and development, and ensure a good chance at a profit once the product is brought to market. Without patent protection, small businesses might never make any returns on their investment and are at risk for predatory companies copying them and even beating them to market.
Trademarks serve as brand identifiers. Trademarks can encompass features such as logos, brand names, slogans, and even jingles. Registered trademarks are required for any branding disputes across state lines, and given modern reliance on e-commerce, that applies to almost all businesses today.
Finally, trade secrets, as their name might suggest, encompass confidential information that aids in the competitive market success of a company. From supplier lists to secret recipes to drug testing protocols, these trade secrets can all be strengthened legally under IP law if there has been a reasonable effort made to ensure their secrecy (via confidentiality agreements and the like).
Entrepreneurship and IP
Much of what makes IP law important is directly applicable to entrepreneurship. New entrepreneurs should be well aware of how IP can help and hurt their business.
In today’s market, brand identity and name ID is more crucial than ever for capturing consumer attention and loyalty. Online reviews and ratings are a prominent part of e-commerce that develop consumer brand association. This is why trademarks are vital for new entrepreneurs; a good brand name and logo, without confusing imitators, can go a long way in leading to the success of that brand. Head to the official government page for trademark info and application instructions for your next steps.
As an entrepreneur, make sure to identify which of your internal mechanisms may count as trade secrets. This means examining what information or methods provide a benefit specifically by remaining secret. Then, implement confidentiality agreements and contract clauses to legally ensure that they stay that way. This enables recourse under intellectual property law later on if trade secrets are divulged by employees or stolen by competitors.
Entrepreneurs who develop any of their own public creative work should review the copyright protections and licensing opportunities available to them. U.S. law applies the principles of copyright to any creative work that is manifested in recording or release, but possessing a copyright filed with the U.S. Copyright Office can grant much better recourse and IP protection in the legal system. Of course, every business should be very aware that it is not itself infringing upon the copyrights of others and risking penalties.
Out of all the IP law types, patents are by far the most significant for entrepreneurs. Since many entrepreneurial ventures are based around inventing something new or making a substantial improvement upon an existing process, patenting should be a primary goal quite often.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office outlines the requirements that should be met in order to be eligible for patenting, which are extensive. One eligibility requirement is being sufficient novel, or unique and new. In order to determine this, a very thorough patent search is necessary. A patent search can illuminate both whether your idea is indeed new, and what that niche in the market looks like (if it is heavily saturated with related patents, for instance).
Processes and production methods can also be patented, as can nonfunctional design and aesthetic elements. This enables companies to protect their novel contributions to a preexisting market where a patent may have expired.
According to J.D. Houvener of Bold Patents Chicago, many entrepreneurs are at risk for missing deadlines or waiting too long to get sufficiently informed about IP options. “The same go-it-alone attitude that makes many entrepreneurs successful can also lead to overlooking of key things like the one-year patent filing deadline from the first disclosure or offer to sell an invention,” says Houvener.
As a new entrepreneur, you are most likely juggling hundreds of responsibilities trying to run or start a business. Intellectual property might seem like something to put off until later, and can be daunting at first glance. However, IP law can be crucial to the success of any new venture.
Entrepreneurs are valuable because of their intellectual contributions to projects, and those contributions can be governed and protected by IP protections as outlined in this article. Copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets, and patents all have their place in any new business, and many should be implemented as soon as possible.
Make sure to consult a qualified legal expert to see whether your company might be ripe for a patent or copyright. A patent attorney or law firm can point you in the right direction and potentially influence the way you approach your business strategy.
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Hunter Amato is a content contributor for the Inland Empire Business Journal. Email: email@example.com