When entrepreneurs start a business, many give little, if any, thought to intellectual property (IP). They may not even realize they have anything that needs to be protected – or that might belong to someone else.
Intellectual property typically includes copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets and patents. Let’s look at a few important steps that no new business owner should ignore.
Identifying your IP
Everything from your company name to your logo to a unique product (and the product name) needs to be protected if you don’t want someone else to be able to use it and cut into your revenue, cause confusion in the marketplace or harm your reputation.
You also need to ensure that you aren’t infringing on someone else’s IP. That starts with the company name. A search of the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) can help you determine whether someone else already owns it. It’s no guarantee, however.
You also need to be clear about who owns the IP rights to a product or idea. If you’re going to be selling something unique, who has the rights to it? Did you or your business partner come up with it?
Getting IP rights from others
Just as important as protecting your IP is making sure you’re not using someone else’s without authorization. You may think you’re too small for a large, established company to bother taking legal action against. However, even some corporate giants like Disney and Apple have been known to fiercely protect their IP – even when it means going after a small company or organization.
Putting the right agreements in place
Protecting your IP, especially when it comes to something like a trade secret, generally involves having everyone who needs access to it to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Determining when these are necessary and when they’re just going to impede your business is crucial. For example, most venture capital firms won’t sign them.
By having experienced IP legal guidance from the beginning, you can save yourself and your new company considerable time and expense in the short term and in the future.