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Intellectual property 101

Whether you’re working on a new product, artwork, software images or written copy, if you’ve created something new, you have the right to protect it from replication or exploitation. This kind of business asset is called intellectual property (IP). IP is a general term for anything that you create and intend to protect against use by others.

To be sure you own your IP, make sure that you:

  • Created and met the requirements of IP protection (more on this in a later section)

  • Purchased IP rights from the creator and/ or the previous owner

  • Didn’t build a brand with a popular term that others could easily reuse if it isn’t trademarked

IP doesn’t have to be owned by just one person. It can:

  • Have more than one owner (if more than one person devised the idea)

  • Belong to an individual person, more than one person or a business entity

  • Be sold or transferred, also known as an assignment 

Selling your IP is different from licensing it. When licensed, the rights to use your IP are given to another person or business. Assignment involves transferring all your rights to another person or entity with the intention of no longer owning the IP.

Unless contracted by a person or business, IP created by the self-employed is always owned by the person who creates it. As a business owner, you must carefully protect your IP by clearly stating in all contracts that any IP created for your business belongs to your business. Doing so will help avoid any legal or liability issues in the future. 

There are many kinds of IP to consider as you create new items or consider protecting existing ones. Here’s a summary to help you better understand what’s available and how each applies to your business:

Trademarks protect your business identity

Having a trademark ensures that others can’t copy your brand identity. This makes your mark more distinguishable and helps your business look more professional and reliable by helping to identify and separate your brand, products and services from others.

There are two types of trademarks: registered and unregistered. A registered trademark is a special mark or symbol assigned to something an individual or firm has taken ownership of by registering that item with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in the U.S. The ® symbol can be found on registered trademarks, while the ™ symbol is used with unregistered trademarks. 

Patents protect inventions

Throughout history, we’ve seen the importance of keeping inventions secret until they’re ready to be shared with the world. Often, if the secret gets out someone else is there to finish what you’ve started. To register for a patent, your invention must be: 

  • New

  • Something that can be made

  • More than a modification on an existing invention

Certain types of inventions can’t be patented, like music, artwork, theory or discovery. 

Unique appearances, shapes and decoration are protected by design rights, which only apply to how the pieces or shapes of your design are arranged or configured. To be eligible for a patent, designs must be new and different from any existing designs on the market. You must also show proof of when you created the design. 

Copyrights protect your creative work

Without a copyright, individuals can use your work without your permission. A copyright protects original works, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, audio, visual, software, web content and more.

Unlike the other IP types, copyrights can’t be registered. Instead, after your work is completed and published, you’re free to use the copyright symbol (©) next to your work. This doesn’t add or detract from the automatic protections of copyright under law, but it’s best practice to use this symbol. 

If you find that someone has used your copyright without permission, you may need to take legal action to stop them. If taking legal action feels like too much, you can attempt to negotiate a license to receive royalties from the third party using your IP. 

Trade secrets include anything from your secret recipe to your customer list

There’s no method for registering your trade secrets, as they’re protected by common law under the law of confidence. There isn’t a way to register a trade secret, so the only way to truly guarantee no one steals it is to guard it. And the best way to make sure others don’t expose your secrets when working with third parties is to have them sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). 

The importance of protecting your business idea

If you have a business idea or a creative asset, you must take steps to protect it. You should first make sure that your IP is original, meaning someone else hasn’t already registered a similar idea in the same category as you.

This process can be complex, so you want to make sure it’s done properly, as there are varying time limits on registered and unregistered IP protections. During this step, consider contacting a patent attorney or trademark attorney to guarantee that your IP has the green light to move forward. 

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