Intellectual Property (IP)
Intellectual Property largely falls into four main categories: Trademarks, Copyright, Patents, and Trade Secrets. Though often overlooked when starting out, intellectual property can be some of your company's most valuable assets. It is usually a good idea to budget some early funding to lock down your IP before it's too late.
A trademark is most commonly a word or a design that functions as a designation of source for your goods or services. When a consumer sees a trademark on a product, she knows which company created that product. If she saw an advertisement for the product or previously enjoyed the product, she knows she can look for the same trademark and be assured that the product will be the same. For the brand owner, trademark rights come from use of the trademark in commerce. The best way to protect your trademark rights is by filing a trademark application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (the "USPTO"). This filing can grant you federal trademark rights that are enforceable nationwide, and even in some places overseas. You can file for a trademark application after you've already begun using the trademark on your goods or services, or you can file a special 'intent to use' application for a trademark you intend to start using in the near future. Unfortunately, the USPTO does not have a simple trademark filing procedure, and it is recommended that you retain an experienced trademark counsel to oversee this process. Armed with valid trademark rights, you can then prevent others from using trademarks that are confusingly similar to yours and protect the goodwill of your brand.
Copyright protects original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression. This usually applies to writings, paintings, sound recordings, and other works of creative expression. Copyright does not protect ideas. Obtaining a copyright registration is very easy and can be done without an attorney through the government portal at http://www.copyright.gov/. Once you obtain a copyright registration, you have additional rights that can be enforced against potential infringers. Bear in mind, however, that there is a complicated and ever-evolving legal body that addresses copyright infringement. Just because someone copies another's copyrighted work does not mean they are automatically liable. Accused infringers can assert a fair use defense and argue that their use was in fact permissible under the law. If you believe your original work, copyrighted or not, has been infringed, we would recommend speaking to a copyright attorney about your options. Likewise, if you are accused of copyright infringement, we would also strongly recommend speaking to an attorney experienced in these matters.
A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The right granted is actually the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention. Utility patents cover any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof. Design patents cover new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture. Patent applications, while costly, can often be the only means of preventing a competitor from stealing your unique product or design. If you believe you have a patentable invention, we would recommend speaking with a patent attorney about your options.
Though not often thought of as traditional intellectual property, trade secrets are just as critical to consider when you are building your business. Trade secrets are generally considered to be any confidential business information which provides an enterprise a competitive edge. This can include manufacturing or industrial secrets and commercial secrets. If your company considers something to be a trade secret, you must take deliberate steps to protect those trade secrets. They must be treated as highly confidential, cannot be publicly known outside the company, and must be vigorously protected from exposure. Confidentiality Agreements, NDAs, and other restrictive covenants can all be used to protect such critical information.