Intellectual property (IP) is something every business should strive to protect, no matter how big or small they may be.
That said, there is a definite incentive for smaller businesses in particular to stay on top of IP protection by understanding the basics of IP law and consulting with a patent attorney whenever necessary.
To help you understand the unique importance of IP law to small businesses, here is a guide to help teach you the basics!
What is IP Law?
Intellectual property is an umbrella term that encompasses any unique work resulting from creativity, be that an original design, invention, logo, slogan or any other essential part of a business’s identity or production.
Since IP law covers such a wide range of work, it is split up into four main areas: trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets and patents.
To give a general overview:
- Trademarks protect brands, covering things like names, logos, symbols, slogans, etc. Anything that can definitively point towards a specific brand to help consumers discern between products based on reputation and specific sellers falls into this category.
- Copyrights protect art, including everything in the wide range of ways artists express themselves (music, artwork, writing, etc.).
- Trade Secrets protect valuable information, regardless of whether that information was acquired through experience and skill or shere luck (both of which play major parts in a business’s level of success). As long as the information is economically valuable, non-obvious and being actively guarded with reasonable effort, it can qualify.
- Patents protect inventions, and they are definitely the most expensive and elaborate form of IP protection. There are also several different types of patents that each aim to protect different elements of an idea since not all inventions rely on the same qualities to be produced (some things may rely more heavily on appearance and design while others are dependent on the function, for instance).
Something that is important to note is that common law can come into play with intellectual property, giving a business or individual automatic rights to their work regardless of formal registration.
Common law can apply to trademarks, copyrights and, sometimes, trade secrets. That said, registering an official copyright/trademark/trade secret does give the brand benefits in terms of taking legal action against infringement and competing on an international scale.
Also important to note is that patents do not have any benefits from common law. They must be officially filed with the USPTO to ensure exclusive rights for the inventor. Failure to do so will classify the idea as public knowledge and anyone can mimic the invention without legal consequences.
Why Small Businesses Should Care
When talking specifically about small business and ventures, IP law becomes a lot more critical, particularly when holding infringing parties accountable.
Why might this be? The simple answer is that small businesses are always going to be the most vulnerable in the marketplace. Complications or misfortunes that larger businesses or corporations can brush off could devastate a small business, and infringement is a serious example of something that could do so.
J.D. Houvener, a patent attorney at Bold Patents, takes particular interest in upcoming entrepreneurs and small businesses:
“I’ve always taken the most sincere interest in up-and-coming entrepreneurs looking to protect their new inventions because I remember what it was like when that was me. I made an intense industry shift to follow my passions as an entrepreneur and patent attorney myself, so I know how intimidating it can be entering an already oversaturated market. That intensity is exactly why I firmly believe that every small business should be secure in their IP protection and general understanding of infringement since they are the most vulnerable.”
Larger, more established businesses have access to resources, client reach and networks that make it incredibly easy for them to outproduce and undersell a small business. If you don’t make sure that your original thoughts and ideas are secured and protected (and stay on top of holding infringers accountable), you can be completely driven out of the market.
How to Make Sure You’re Protected
The first thing you should do to make sure you have sufficient protection is really analyze what about your business or idea is unique and valuable to you and your brand.
If you are just starting out, this means seeking out registration for copyrights and trademarks to protect any of your original branding or creative work. It also means filing for patents for any original inventions and ideas before you bring them to market.
If you’re already established and are looking to get more serious about protection later in the game (perhaps you have your own horror story surrounding infringement), that’s okay too!
As mentioned, there is common law for copyright, trademark and trade secret protection, so you can still go the extra mile and register your intellectual property for official protection and rest easy knowing that as long as you can prove that you were the first to produce your idea, you have the right to it.
That said, if you’re a business reliant on inventions as a part of your model, you should absolutely be seeking out patents for any new ideas you develop and introduce.
Even if it’s too late for your older ideas, the fact that you are still in the entrepreneurial game shows that you have talent, skill and drive worth protecting with your future ideas and innovation.
Regardless of your position, contacting a patent attorney will help immensely in making sure you are on top of everything concerning your intellectual property. Most will offer free consultations to advise you on the best ways to proceed and everything that should be done, so even if you aren’t ready to hire and budget for one (which will be necessary for things like patents), meeting with qualified professionals is an excellent resource to help you.
While IP law is an integral part of any business at any stage in its growth, it is particularly critical for small or new businesses who may not be able to recover from severe, immediate competition.
The more expensive parts of IP law, like hiring attorneys or filing for a patent, may be daunting to smaller ventures, but it is absolutely vital and worth it to avoid the regret of having a brilliant, original idea stolen.
If you want to learn more about how IP law can help with your particular situation, look into qualified patent attorneys in your area and start a conversation to make sure you’re protected.