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:
Whose Is It?
It was someone on your staff who came up with the idea, but it's your name on the door. So who owns the patent or copyright? Absent some prior agreement or later assignment, you probably can't patent your employees' ideas -- inventors retain all patent rights until they transfer, assign, or sell them to another party.
What Is Covered?
Patents, trademarks, and copyrights can collectively cover all of your small businesses ideas and content, but each covers discreet types of intellectual property. Deciding what needs protection and how to protect it is essential.
Where Do I File?
Some copyright and trademark protections kick in as soon as you start using the name, material, or content. (This can help, considering the pitfalls of the trademark application process.) And other ideas won't be protected until you file a patent application. But nearly all applications go through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
How Do IP Protections Work?
That can be up to you -- some businesses protect their intellectual property more aggressively than others, and finding the right balance of lenience and litigiousness can be difficult. In some cases, a sternly-worded or comedic cease and desist letter will suffice. In others, you may have to sue.
When Do I Start?
Right now, if you haven't already. You can begin with an intellectual property audit of your small business, whether you've been around for decades or for days.
FindLaw's Intellectual Property section is geared towards startups and small business owners and is another great place to start. If you have more questions about IP protections, you can contact an experienced intellectual property attorney in your area.
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