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Entrepreneurship: Protecting Intellectual Property

by Mike Wilkinson on September 15, 2010

Last month, Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen filed a suit against 11 companies, including Google Inc., Facebook Inc., and eBay Inc., with patent infringement.  The suit, filed in federal court in Seattle, claims those companies are using technology developed a decade ago.  So this begs the question on the importance of how to protect your intellectual property (IP).

All entrepreneurs wrestle with the question of how to protect their IP — property that can be protected under federal law, including copyrightable works, ideas, discoveries, and inventions.  It’s important to first determine if you are borrowing someone’s idea, or if you have created something worth protecting.  Assuming you have IP, and venture capitalists are hoping you do, the information below may be useful.

Tips for Protecting Your IP

1.     File for protection. One way to safeguard your invention or idea is to file for protection under U.S. patent, trademark, and copyright laws.

  • Patents may be available to any person who “invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.” Patent protection must be sought by application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
  • Trademarks protect words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that distinguish goods and services from those manufactured or sold by others and to indicate the source of the goods. Registration with the USPTO is not required, but does provide certain advantages.
  • Copyrights protect original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic and certain other works, both published and unpublished. In the United States, the U.S. Copyright Office handles copyright registration that, although not required for protection, does confer advantages.
  • The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) reviews patent applications and determines whether an application meets the requirements for federal registration.  For more information on filing for a patent in the United States contact: (800) 786-9199 or (703) 308-4357 or http://www.uspto.gov/patents/index.jsp. To file electronically with the USPTO visit: http://www.uspto.gov/patents/ebc/index.jsp.

2.     Invest in legal counsel. It’s worth the investment to engage the services of an experienced small business or intellectual property (IP) attorney. He or she can help you to make the proper distinction regarding whether or not to file for a patent, a trademark and/or copyright.

3.     Be realistic. Don’t convince yourself that just because you’ve had an idea trademarked or filed for a patent, it is protected.  You will have to defend your patent in a civil court at your expense.  The reality is if you do not have an arsenal of attorneys on your side, you may not be able to protect yourself against an infringement.

4.     Do your research. Even though you have protected your own rights, make sure you are not stepping on the rights of others. Don’t “borrow” someone else’s idea or imitate a specific product or service.  Take the time to fully develop your idea before launching it into the universe. When you come to the table with an idea that has been well research, is trademarked or has a patent pending, you greatly increase your odds of attracting investors or getting lending institutions on your side.

5.     Use nondisclosure agreements. Many entrepreneurs are afraid that someone will steal their idea while they are seeking help.  A common approach is to make sure that anyone you share the information with signs a “nondisclosure agreement” (NDA) prior to your disclosure. Typical NDAs contractually obligate signatories to refrain from disclosing confidential information without the disclosing party’s expressed consent.

6.     Be patient. Realize that it takes time to license a patent or obtain a copyright or trademark. In the meantime, you can continue to build and grow your idea under the radar.

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