Intellectual property protection is critical for businesses, especially in the 21st century economy. IP is not tangible. But although you cannot hold in your hands, it belongs to your business just the same. Smart entrepreneurs should learn about the laws that protect this valuable type of property from theft by other businesses or individuals.
In particular, you should consider the effect of trademark, copyright, patent, and trade secret law. These four types of IP law generally address most forms of IP that businesses create.
Trademarks Protect Your Identity
Trademarks protect the images, words, or sounds that distinguish your business from others in the marketplace. For example, the words "Big Brown" are associated with the shipping company UPS. When you hear that phrase, you make an automatic connection to that company.
If your business logo is the name of your company inside a distinctive image of a starburst, this is intellectual property. You can protect it under trademark law. At the same time, you must be careful not to accidentally copy the trademark of another business. One way to ensure this is to make your trademark as unique as possible. Read Nolo's full Guide to Trademark Law.
Copyrights Protect Your Creations
Copyright law protects artwork, music, and words. These things are also intellectual property when your business, or someone who works for your business, creates them. Examples include a jingle you create to use in radio advertisements, or an informative article posted on your business's website.
If you copyright these things, no other business can use them without your permission. However, make sure you own them legally. If you pay an independent contractor to create the jingle or the article, it's typically not your intellectual property unless the contractor assigns the rights to you or your business. See Guide to Copyright Law.
Patents Protect Inventions
Patents protect your ideas for new products or processes. Getting a patent can be expensive and time-consuming. If you're sure that your idea is unique, that it will work, and that it's saleable, it might be worth the time and money to seek a patent. In the meantime, safeguard any tangible plans or notes by placing them in a safe deposit box or some other secure location. If someone makes use of your plans before you patent your idea, the law can no longer protect you. See Guide to Patent Law.
Trade Secrets Are Protected
When the success of your business depends on certain information, this information is intellectual property. A famous example is the formula for Coca Cola. The formula sets it apart from other similar soft drinks.
Client and potential client contact lists can also be intellectual property. Trade secret laws protect this type of information from theft, but you should also take your own steps to safeguard it. Any employees, associates, or subcontractors with access to your trade secret should be required to sign nondisclosure or confidentiality agreements with your business. Read Guide to Trade Secret Law.
A Business or Intellectual Property Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding protection of intellectual property is complicated. Plus, the facts of each situation that may face your business are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the four primary flavors of intellectual property law that your business may need. For more detailed, specific information, please contact an intellectual property lawyer.