Intellectual property (IP) is one of many important legal considerations for startups. While a lot of small companies immediately put together an effective IP policy, in contrast many startups don’t take necessary measures to protect their ideas and end up spending a fortune in legal fees down the road.
Basically, IP covers an array of legal ownership claims that include copyrights, trademarks, patents, industrial design rights and trade secrets. Given that IP is broadly defined, there is substantial room for mistakes and oversights.
Protect all of your creations with these ten key steps.
Patent Protection: Protecting Products and Processes
- Formalize ownership agreements amongst founders. If your company is just getting off the ground and you’re about to look for some serious funding, hope for the best but get a clear agreement between everyone involved as to who owns what and how any dividends created by your intellectual property will be divided either when you grow larger or if the company just flat out implodes one day.
- Patent filing is expensive, so spend strategically. Keep any patent expenses to a minimum and focus them exclusively on strategic IP protection. For example, although you may want to enter international markets one day, first focus on domestic patent filings. Save the international filings for when you reach some of those markets or enough fame to have people overseas even know who you are.
- Keep your mouth shut about your inventions and patent ideas. Keep outward information flow to a minimum when it comes to your ideas and intellectual property. It’s understandable that you need to gauge investor interest, however keep to a basic policy of limiting information flow to only those who need to know. Truly sensitive ideas and core patentable plans should only be shown to people who have agreed to sign a non disclosure agreement (NDA).
- Start with a provisional patent applications first. Filing a provisional patent with the U.S Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is a nice stop gap before a formal application. Provisional applications allow you to create temporary IP protection with much less legal hassle and expense. Consult with legal professionals first before making a decision.
Copyright Notice: Protecting Written Materials
- Don’t forget the copyright notice. Written copyright notices have been legally optional under U.S law since 1989, but why not avoid misunderstandings? Make sure that every manual, guide, major document and publicity material put out by your startup has the copyright symbol or the word “Copyright” pegged to it along with the year of creation and first publication.
- Keep ownership rights completely clear. Chances are that a bunch of different people who are either partners in your startup or working as hired help will probably be producing a lot of your content and other written materials. To prevent the problem of them later claiming ownership under their own name, set up a written control contract that everyone who produces content for you needs to sign, giving your company full rights.
- Register your copyright for maximum legal protection. A simple written notice works for most cases, but if you really value your written work, website or other text-based IP, you should visit the U.S Copyright office, pay their processing fee and send off an application for fully registered copyright registration.
Trademark Registration: Keep Your Brand Safe
Your trademarks are all the words, designs and symbols that distinguish your brand from anyone else’s. Keep them safe and make sure they clearly belong to you.
- Perform a trademark search. As a first step, always perform a clearance search on any trademark ideas you have to be absolutely sure that nobody else has already taken them for themselves. You can use clearance companies that offer this service for you, but might also want to consider doing your own investigation on the search engines, trademark databases and even web domain registrars. And note, the “United States, recognizes common law trademark rights, which means action can be taken for trademark that is in use but not registered. In the United States, registration is not required, but it increases the legal protections offered to the trademark holder.”
- Register your trademarks. Get your trademark formally registered with the U.S Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). While your registration is pending, make sure that any instance of trademark in your startups promotional and other materials is followed by the letters TM, for products, or SM, for services. After you gain legal status, you can tack on the ® that symbolizes a registered trademark.
- Protect domain names and social media usernames. Don’t forget about your company’s domain names and social media tags. Prevent cybersquatting and domain name disputes. These are crucial parts of thorough trademark protection and if you don’t fully register them as exclusively yours, someone else who steals them down the road could do some serious damage to your company’s online reputation. While social media networks have their policies, for example “Twitter has a policy against name squatting and selling usernames” it’s still important to actively claim your company’s name in social networks — even those you don’t currently use.
Alright, so we’ve covered the basics of patent, copyright and trademark protection. Pay close attention to all three as your grow your startup into the next Google and you should be a happier business owner. Just make sure you do plenty of research for protecting all of the IP you produce, these tips just barely scratch the surface.
Jeff Fields is a freelance writer who writes about IP, licensing, and patent issues for Red Chalk Group, an international IP management company based in Chicago.
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