Intellectual property (IP) might be one of the most valuable assets of your company. But if it’s not protected, you can be foregoing a significant advantage in the marketplace.
There are four major IP categories:
- Patents, which protect inventions;
- Copyrights, which protect artistic forms of expression;
- Trademarks, which protect brands; and
- Trade secrets.
Generally, the types of IP small businesses may be interested in protecting are unique to the kind of company and its core competencies. For example, businesses that are predicated on developing new products or technology will be interested in patent protection, while another business may be identified by its brands and would want to protect those through trademarks.
However, John P. Cornely, of counsel at Fay Sharpe, LLP, says it’s important to take a close look at everything — from catalog photographs to manufacturing processes — to ensure the security of all of your IP.
Smart Business spoke with Cornely about successful strategies to identify and protect IP.
How does a small business identify and track its IP?
In a small business, to some extent, you have IP being created by many people in your organization at many points in the workflow cycle. You want to be systematic about identifying your IP. When it comes to patents, consider using an invention disclosure form. These forms can be made available to employees, especially those involved in the invention creation process, and are used to collect the data necessary for completing a patent application — inventor’s names, the date the invention was created, a description and/or drawings of the invention and the location of records that support the invention, such as a hard drive or lab notebook.
Encourage your inventors to use the forms and have regular sessions to review inventions and the potential for protection. Regular review meetings can also assist in identifying and/or ranking the relative importance of multiple inventions.
This form system can be used with other types of IP to identify creations and have a way to systematically collect information about them.
What are important inventions to protect?
It’s most important to protect those that make a product stand out in the market. As a small business, maybe you don’t have the resources to file 100 patent applications and might only be able to do a couple each year, so it’s critical to identify where to best apply your resources. Find the aspects of your products that make them more valuable and desirable in the marketplace. Think of it in terms of what features of your products your competitors would like to copy and select strategic patent protections that will keep your competitors from doing so.
Should companies federally register their trademark?
Yes. There are procedural benefits to registering your trademarks that will help in potential infringement actions.
When you start using a trademark in commerce you naturally gain common-law rights whether you’ve registered the mark with the federal government or not. However, one of the problems is those common-law rights are limited to the geographic area in which you’re doing business. So if you’re selling a product in Cleveland, Ohio, under a specific mark, you only have common-law rights in Cleveland. A federal trademark registration extends your rights nationally. Further, federal registration of your trademark provides you with procedural benefits if there’s an infringement action.
And, much like patents, you want to register those marks and brands that are most important to you if your resources are limited.
What can a company keep as a trade secret?
Sometimes there may be an idea that’s not a good fit for patenting or that you don’t want to disclose, for example, like a process of manufacturing a product. Trade secrets are great tools for protecting some ideas because, theoretically, the protection can last forever while patents commonly expire after 20 years. However, the secret generally has to be something no one else can easily discover, for example through reverse engineering; you have to treat it cautiously and control its dissemination. Many small businesses may think they have trade secrets, but since they are not effectively treating them as such that information won’t enjoy the legal status of trade secret, which has certain advantages.
Some things are easy to keep secret, such as formulas and manufacturing processes, because only a few people have or can discover that information. If the information can be discovered from viewing or reverse engineering your product, you won’t be able to keep that a secret. One risk is that if your secret is discovered legitimately then you’ve lost your trade secret status, but if someone were to uncover your trade secret through theft or breach of contract, then you have a case.
How does a small business secure rights to the company’s IP from its employees and contractors?
While this is important, it’s also often overlooked. You want to have some language in your employee or contractor agreements that details ownership of any IP rights. Contrary to what some might think, it’s not always the small business that owns the rights to IP developed by contractors. For example, when hiring a contract photographer to take pictures for your website, the copyright for the work (i.e., the photographs) stays with the photographer unless you have a written agreement that says otherwise. That also extends to contract programmers who can retain the copyright for developed software absent a sufficient written contract to the contrary.
In general, it’s a good rule to have your agreements explicitly spell out IP ownership rights in writing up front.
John P. Cornely is of counsel at Fay Sharpe, LLP. Reach him at (216) 363-9000 or email@example.com.
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