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Patent Basics for Entrepreneurs

Every entrepreneur needs to know something about patents, lest you miss an opportunity to invest in a lucrative new invention. Or worse, fail to patent yours as promptly as possible.

Patents are part of a system for organizing intellectual property. They protect inventions, so you need more than just an idea to be granted a patent and applying can be an arduous process. Still, wait too long and someone may beat you to the punch. So let’s get started.

Top 5 Small Business Intellectual Property Issues

Your business may sell tangible goods -- cars or cupcakes, say -- or it may sell services. But whatever business you are in, you will likely also have some intellectual property, meaning ideas, concepts, methods, phrases, or images which you seek to protect.

Intellectual property law governs the grant of patents, trademarks, copyright, and more. Let's consider the top five IP issues for small business.

There's not a business out there, big or small, that doesn't have intellectual property issues. Patents, trademarks, and copyrights touch every aspect of business, not just the latest tech startup. So if don't have a plan to assert and protect your small business intellectual property rights, you don't really have a business plan at all.

From the idea to the Patent and Trademark Office to the courtroom, here's what your small business or startup needs to know about intellectual property:

No Editorial Oversight or Staff Means No Liability for Online Publisher

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled late last month that a media company was not responsible for the copyright infringing posts of its freelance writers. If you are running an online business of any kind, creating content, or working with contractors and freelancers, you will find this case interesting.

According to Reuters, the three-judge panel ruled that Examiner.com was entitled to safe harbor protection for Internet Service Providers under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and, as such, was not responsible for content posted to the site by "Examiners." The ruling seems to suggest that the less responsibility a publisher takes for its content or creators, the better off it will be from a liability perspective.

You have a great idea. Now how do you make sure no one steals it? Having a website is essential these days, and it can be a great way to get your small business's ideas and information out to a wider audience. But it can also expose those ideas to some less ethical outfits just looking to lift content from other sources.

Copyrights are intended to protect your work from someone else's unlicensed use, but do they apply to website content? And are copyrights the best way to protect material and ideas on your website?

We're big advocates of registering your trademarks -- it's a relatively painless process that can protect your intellectual property from infringement. We say "relatively painless" because, unlike the trademark for Havana Club rum, most trademark applications don't take 21 years to be processed.

One way to avoid having your trademark application sit around for two decades is to stay out of the kind of litigation Havana Club got involved in. Here are a few others:

As the American craft beer scene has exploded over the last decade, so has the amount of litigation involving craft breweries. Beer makers are going to court over everything from labels and naming rights to trademarked tap handles and whether the beer they make can even be called "craft beer."

Not only have these sudsy spats caused brewers time and money, but some customers as well. It turns out, much like parents with rowdy children, they don't like seeing their favorite breweries fighting. So what can your small business learn from the latest craft beer legal wranglings?

Apple Sued for iPhone Wi-Fi Assist Miss

Apple is being sued for Wi-Fi Assist, a feature that is less than helpful. Plaintiffs say Apple should not have left Wi-Fi Assist on as a default setting or should have made it more apparent that iOS9 users would incur added charges when it is turned on, Fortune reports.

Two plaintiffs filed suit on behalf of a class of users with data overage charges. They want Apple to reimburse iOS9 users who did not have unlimited data plans and got hit with big cell phone bills because of Wi-Fi Assist.

JPEG Copyright Possibility Threatens Fair Use

The Joint Photographic Experts Group, better known as JPEG, this week launched a security initiative seeking copyright protections for images. This will make image sharing more secure. But it will also bolster intellectual property protections for image holders, and that is controversial.

Critics are disappointed. "So much for hopes that the tech industry would back away from copyright protection any time soon," wrote engadget. The concern is for all of us, really, because copyright for jpegs will block creation of much material made under "fair use" doctrine.

Colleges Creating Law Clinics to Help Student Startups

The law is generally not a major concern for young tech geeks dreaming of being the next Mark Zuckerburg. But sometimes, long before the first billion is made, student startups hit a snag. A serious snag -- like a state attorney general's investigation.

That is what happened to some students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who found themselves under investigation by New Jersey. Their promising software was accused of hijacking computers. Instead of developing an investment strategy, the students found themselves under investigation. Ultimately, no one was charged with a crime but the experience taught MIT to think different about the law.