7 Tips for Business Owners
Intellectual property is a touchy subject, as many disputes can arise when two parties claim ownership over an abstract idea. Thankfully, we have many legal barriers and protections at our disposal to keep our property from falling into the wrong hands.
Here are seven tips to help business owners maintain full ownership of their intellectual property.
Types of Intellectual Property Protection
There are four primary types of legal intellectual property protection: copyrights, trademarks, patents and trade secrets. Here’s a quick overview of each type and the best times to use them.
Copyrights protect all creative property for the creator’s lifetime, plus another 70 years after their death. “Creative property” refers to books, songs, artwork, videos, photos, manuscripts and any other physical manifestations of a person’s original ideas. Your business should primarily be concerned with copyrighting website content, computer software, manuals and other original content that a competitor might be interested in using.
These works will receive default copyright protection the moment they’re created, but you can also register for enhanced rights by filing the right copyright forms. These forms allow you to take immediate legal action and seek monetary compensation.
If you want to maintain ownership of a name or slogan, a trademark is the best legal protection. Any intellectual property that makes your brand unique and recognizable is eligible for a trademark, including symbols and logos. Each trademark lasts for the duration of your business’s existence and gets renewed every ten years.
However, the property you wish to trademark must be 100% unique. For example, if your logo closely resembles another company’s logo, you can’t register it under a trademark. It has to be an original idea with no chance of confusion.
Patents protect new inventions for 20 years before they become fair game to the public. “New” is the key word in that description. You can’t go back and patent something that your business created several years ago and other people now possess. It must be new to the market and have no replications anywhere else.
Despite the strict requirements, businesses can patent many things essential to their day-to-day operations. Machines, computer programs, materials and work schedule processes are all subject to patenting, as long as they’re new and complete. You can’t patent a design idea or a work in progress – only the finished product.
4. Trade Secrets
A trade secret is any information that your business wants to keep private, whether it’s to maintain an economic advantage or to hold a new product under wraps. As you might imagine, this form of intellectual property is the most difficult to protect.
There are no forms or registrations that can prevent your competitors from obtaining the information. However, as long as you provide sufficient evidence that you attempted to keep the information secret, you can prosecute someone in a civil or criminal court. The result might end up being corporate espionage or insider trading, both of which are federal offenses.
Other Tips and Tricks
Along with legal protections, there are some simple tactics a business owner can use to keep their intellectual property safe. Here are the most straightforward ways to defend your unique products and services.
1. Use Digital Rights Management Software (DRM)
If your business’s intellectual property is published online and accessible to the public, digital rights management software can protect it through encryption. A DRM is especially useful for computer software, e-books, market reports and other gated content. Here’s how it protects your property:
- Limits the number of times a user can access your work.
- Regulates the devices that can access your work.
- Blocks unauthorized users from editing or copying your work.
- Creates watermarks to keep your name on the work when users download and share it.
Your business’s content might be available for public viewing, but that doesn’t make it public domain. A DRM helps privatize your intellectual property by creating extra roadblocks and restricting what a user can do with your work.
2. Draft a Variety of Nondisclosure Agreements
Nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) restrict all agreeing parties from sharing any information. There is a specific NDA for every common business relationship:
- Employer-employee: this NDA, also known as an employee confidentiality agreement, restricts employees from revealing private company information to advance their careers or help a competitor.
- Company-contractor: contractors have more autonomy than employees, so businesses can add non-competition and conflict-of-opportunities clauses to this NDA so they don’t use the business’s ideas with another company.
- Inventor-evaluator: if a business creates a new product or service that needs evaluations, it can write this NDA to prevent evaluators from stealing the product and any work that helped create it (test data, balance sheets, etc.).
- Seller-buyer: this NDA limits the buyer from sharing business operations, production processes and other private information they might have seen during the transaction.
NDAs are the unofficial documents that protect your trade secrets. There are no direct legal consequences for breaking them, but they provide compelling evidence for an intellectual property rights violation lawsuit.
3. Document Your Findings
Documenting all of your findings will create all the evidence necessary to prove that a piece of intellectual property belongs to your business. If someone steals your information, your documents can establish a clear timeframe and show that you were the first person to claim ownership of the property in question.
4. Avoid Joint Ownership
If possible, you should avoid taking joint ownership of intellectual property. It can be a beneficial relationship for musicians and other self-employed individuals, but business owners have an entire organization to consider. You don’t have full control over the property, and the partnership could lead to confusion and legal issues down the road. It’s better for everyone to have complete ownership of their intellectual property.
5. Establish Strict Access Credentials
Guarding a secret requires strong security measures. Use strict access credentials to limit who can see your business’s sensitive information. Multi-factor authentication, complex passwords and activity tracking technologies are all great security protocols that will lower the risk of a cyber attack and keep your intellectual property in safe hands.
6. Raise Employee Awareness
Let’s say you own a luxury car. You can implement all the security measures you want, but they won’t matter if the driver doesn’t know all the risks. If you trust your employees, upgrade their training and give them more insights into your business’s security threats. Make them aware of the ways they can unintentionally compromise intellectual property and teach them to avoid those mistakes.
7. Think Like a Competitor
To stop your competitors from stealing your intellectual property, you need to think like your competitors. What would you do if you needed to spy on your business? A number of security threats should come to mind. Always consider your competitors’ points of view when implementing security solutions.
Safeguard Your Intellectual Property
Our intellectual property is never 100% safe in this digital world, but business owners have the resources to establish many safeguards around their information. Take advantage of all the types of legal protection, carefully document your work and take lengthy security precautions.
These efforts will help you maintain ownership over what’s rightfully yours and keep your business operating smoothly.