Success Tips

Twenty Tips For Startup Success, Part Nine: Protect Your Intangible Assets

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In the previous post in the series, I talked about protecting your company’s secret information against potential theft or disclosure. In this part, I’ll discuss the importance of protecting your intellectual property.

You’re not starting with much when you are starting your business from its bare bones. Beyond what few physical assets you might be bringing to get yourself started, all you have are your ideas. And those ideas represent your intellectual property (IP). This IP is the foundation of your business and its value to you and the outside world; they are the ideas and creations that you hope can carve out a place for your business in the marketplace.

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Unfortunately, not enough people give sufficient thought to how they can protect that valuable IP, especially as they’re considering their next moves for hiring, growth, and investment. IP protection might not be the sexiest part of running a business, but it can be the most important given its centrality to the value of any business. Taking a little time to consider what you’ve created and how you can protect it can pay dividends in the long term.

Your website and marketing material might not get much though as you consider what might be your creative works, but they both represent examples of work for which you have copyright. Copyright is granted to original works in a fixed medium, so placing your ideas on paper or a website gives you copyright over what you’ve written to market your company, provided that it is your original work. And the beauty of copyright is that it is automatically conferred upon your work as soon as you place it in that fixed medium, so there’s no immediate action needed on the part of the creator. However, if you should feel like you might have to take legal action for infringement of your copyright, you will have to file it with the U.S. Copyright Office in a timely fashion.

Copyright isn’t to be confused with trademarks. Trademarks are the marks or designs or logos or expressions that are associated with your business and identify you and your products to consumers. They are the things that let your customers know that the product they’re buying is from you, with the features and quality that they expect based upon the positive equity you’ve built in your brand. To that end, you want to make sure that others aren’t out there trying to capitalize on your hard work by using your marks to sell their products. As you develop logos and phrases that are associated with your business, you want to register them with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (after doing a search to make sure that you yourself aren’t accidentally infringing.) Once you’ve filed for your trademarks, it’s a good practice to do routine searches to make sure that your marks aren’t being used elsewhere online without your knowledge and approval.

Patents are an important intellectual property protection for many creators but remain somewhat misunderstood as to what they are and what they actually do for those holding a patent. In order to receive a patent, an invention has to be useful, novel, and non-obvious. And even when the patent is granted, the owner is simply conferred the right to exclude others from making and selling their particular invention, not the right to sell it, especially when the patent held is enmeshed with previously existing works patented by others. All of this is to say that while getting a patent on your invention is an important step, it isn’t a fast pass to success or a license to print money; you still have to make sure that you have the right to make your product, and put in the work necessary to sell it in the marketplace.      

Trade secrets are the often-unsung heroes of intellectual property protections. They are a particular method or practice or particular know-how that sets your business and product apart from others. And they remain unsung because, in order to be a trade secret, they must remain secret; there are no government protections that can be provided them.

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