What if you could legally prevent someone from copying you?
What's intellectual property?
Intellectual property includes not just inventions but also many other creative works, such as art, logos, software, movies, photography, or literature - pretty much anything, as long as it's based on an idea that you had.
People who've created things can legally protect their work by using copyrights, trademarks, trade secret law, and patents.
All of those things put together are called "intellectual property law."
How does intellectual property law work?
It works very well, thank you.
So what's the real answer?
Intellectual property (IP) laws are different in every country. In the U.S., a utility patent protects your invention for 20 years. A design patent protects your product's ornamental design for 15 years. You can protect your works of art with copyrights, your company's name or logo with trademarks, and your company's proprietary information with trade secret law.
What's a copyright?
It means the right to copy. It also means the right to display, perform, and make works based on the original work.
The most exciting part about copyright protection, though, is that you can legally prevent anyone else besides you from doing these things, unless they buy a license from you.
What's a trademark?
It's something (a "mark") that's associated with your company's service or product ("trade"). Usually it's your company's name or logo.
With trademark protection, you can legally prevent other people from using your name, logo, or other mark. You'll need to make sure you've either used or registered your mark first, though, and it helps a lot to have a distinctive one.
What's a trade secret?
If your company has valuable, proprietary information, trade secret protection attaches if you've taken "reasonable" steps to keep it secret. The traditional example of such a "reasonable" step includes making all your employees who have access to that information sign an agreement to keep it all confidential.
Anything special that small business owners should know about intellectual property?
Lesson 1: "You snooze, you lose."
A lot of intellectual property protection is based on who got there first - who came up with the idea or the expression or trade name first. As a corollary, usually a lawsuit is won by the party that can PROVE they got there first.
An official government registration of your copyright, trademark, or patent is the most bulletproof way to prove a priority date. Nothing else works quite the same way.
Lesson 2: "Don't accidentally sabotage your rights!"
Often - much too often - an inventor, business, or artist will lose their IP rights, either because they didn't read their contract carefully enough, or because they publicized their idea too early. It's important to know both the broad strokes and details of IP law when it's early enough to make a difference.
How do I find out what kind of IP protection is best for me?.
That's where we come in! Feel free to get in touch and ask.