You should have an attorney available as a part of your business team to help you with the complexities of intellectual property law. However, you are responsible to at least have a basic understanding of your intellectual property rights, and you can do some of the legal work on your own. The three main areas you should familiarize yourself with are:
- patent law
- copyright law
Trademarks allow the public to distinguish the goods or services of one person from the next. The purpose of trademarks is to protect the public from confusion as to where a service or product comes from. For example, if you only like to buy Kellogg's cereal, then you'd hate buying another cereal named "Kellogg's" if it's not the same thing. Likewise, as a business owner, you may want to get a trademark for your business so that no one buys from your competitor, thinking that they're buying from you. If you own the trademark, only you can use that name or tagline. To get a trademark, you can register it with the state where you conduct business and/or federally with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Where you register your trademark depends on various factors, including whether you plan to use the trademark locally or nationally.
When you patent an invention, you get many rights including the right to exclude someone else from making it or offering it for sale in the United States. In order to patent your invention, you must file an application with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Patent law requires that you include "claims" in your application, which are numbered paragraphs describing your invention. After your application is filed, there is a period of time referred to as "prosecution" where other individuals or companies can raise objections to your patent application. Others may object because your invention is too similar to theirs or part of your invention uses their invention, and therefore they'll want you to change your patent claims. If you are successful in getting a patent, you can generate income by selling the invention outright, or by giving single or multiple companies permission to sell it. This is known as licensing.
You own the copyright to all original works the moment you create them. You should follow up with a copyright registration if you want to be able to protect your work in court. Some laws will not allow you certain remedies without a copyright registration. You can copyright both published and unpublished work by filling out a copyright registration with the Library of Congress. It's important to know that copyrights protect the expression of an idea, but not the underlying idea. For example, if you develop a membership website, and your competitor does the same thing but in a slightly different way, both of you can copyright your websites separately and both will be valid. Like patents, you can generate income from your copyrights yourself, or you can license them to others.
You don't have to register your trademarks, copyrights or patents to be considered the owner of your works. However, doing so will solve many legal problems, especially in the area of intellectual property. Be sure to develop a savings plan for these if the registration costs are too high for you.
Daphne Mallory, Esq. is the co-owner of Mallory Writing Services and has written more than 100 articles helping home based business owners and entrepreneurs start and market their business. You can learn more about her here.