If you have a small business, you might think that your assets are limited to what you have on hand or can see. But the reality is that intangible assets are tied up in your business that you haven’t considered. Even if your business is just getting started, the overwhelming majority of your company’s value comes from your intellectual property (IP). But despite their importance, most small businesses don’t do enough to protect their IP because they don’t know enough about it or in some cases, what IP even is.
Here are a few basics on intellectual property to help you get started.
Copyright extends to words or images that have been created by you or your company. Copyright can prove especially important if you work in a creative field, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter for the average business. Chances are you have a company blog, or even marketing emails or print collateral that you use in your business. When considering the copy, pictures, or videos that were created by you, or that you own the rights to, remember to be vigilant against potential infringers taking those materials off your site for their own use without permission.
Your trademarks are the words, symbols, or designs that you use to identify your business and distinguish yourself from the competition. When looking to protect your trademarks, there are two ways you can go about it. If you have a mark that you’d like to trademark, you can use the TM symbol to claim an unregistered or common law trademark. Once you’ve federally registered your mark with the USPTO, you can begin using the ® symbol to indicate that it is a registered trademark. Having a registered trademark makes protecting it easier should you have to take legal action to do so.
A patent is the type of protection that is most often thought about as IP, as it is associated with inventions and innovative products. When you patent something, you are granted exclusive rights to that creation by the government for a period of time (usually 20 years.) An important distinction to note is that a patent isn’t the right to produce or sell an invention, but rather the right to exclude others from doing so. This right allows you to take legal action against companies that are infringing upon your patent. Also noteworthy is the fact that for an invention to be patentable, it has to be both new as well as non-obvious to someone of an average level of skill and ability in that field.
Trade secret protection
Trade secrets are the special processes and know-how that set your products and company apart from your competitors. A trade secret differs from other types of IP protection in that you do not register a trade secret. Quite the opposite, actually — in order to maintain a trade secret, it has to stay secret. That means keeping it under lock and key and restricting access to those who need to know. If you’re looking to take legal action against someone who has stolen your trade secret, you’ll need to prove that you took great care to protect it.
Being aware of your own intellectual property and what you can do to protect it will allow you to create even greater value for your company. It will also help you protect against those who would try to exploit your hard work for their own gain.