New product ideas, processes and company identifiers are valuable assets that make up your company's intellectual property. How can you set up a strong intellectual property protection plan to help ensure no one takes what makes your business distinctive?
There are three main types of intellectual property protection to know about and take advantage of, when applicable to your company's needs.
Although pure ideas and concepts can't be protected, their written expressions can be. In essence, this means you can't copyright your vision, but you can copyright a drawing of it.
Copyright protection takes effect as soon as the idea, words or music are saved on some form of media. You don't have to officially register it, but if you want to file a lawsuit against anyone who infringes on your copyright, you may need to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office to prove it is yours.
If you hire suppliers to work on your concept, you may want to ask them to sign a "work made for hire" agreement specifying that you will own any designs, copy or photos resulting from the engagement.
If your idea results in the development of a process or product, you can apply for patent protection with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). A patent provides a 20-year exclusive right to your product, during which time no one else has the right to produce or use it without your consent.
There are three types of patents:
- Utility: If you've created a functional process, machine, material or improved significantly on an existing one, you may apply for a utility patent.
- Design: Design patents cover graphical representations that are new and original.
- Plant: Plant patents are issued for the creation of new plant species.
Once you apply for a patent, you can claim "patent pending" status. The typical patent application takes three to five years to be decided and costs thousands of dollars. Be sure that it will be beneficial for your company to prevent others from using your process before you invest valuable resources to obtain protection.
A third type of intellectual property that can be critical to your business is the word, name or symbol you use to represent your company or products. You can file an "intent to use" application with the USPTO if you are in the process of introducing a new brand name or logo. Once you have used it publicly, you can file a "use" application.
To indicate you are claiming trademark protection, you can immediately begin using the small ™ next to the product name or sm for services represented by a service mark. Once the trademark has been granted, you can use the registered ® symbol.
Intellectual property is a critical business asset you should take steps to protect and defend. These three tools are a means to do just that. If you have questions about the process or which protection method will be best for your small or midsized business, you should consult with legal counsel knowledgeable in the area of intellectual property.
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