A question you hear a lot on the entrepreneurial TV show Shark Tank is “how are you protecting your company?” What the investors mean is do you have intellectual property (a copyright, patent or trademark) or a special sauce that deters copycats from mimicking your business idea and stealing your customers?
If you feel that you have unique intellectual property, the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) and US Copyright Office have some useful information. However, I would always recommend backing this up by consulting your attorney who specializes in the area you are looking to protect. The analogy frequently used is that of the castle that is protected by building a moat and filling it with water. It is harder for the enemy to attack you.
Here are the 3 types of intellectual property:
1). Trademarks – typically your brand name or logo. You can start with a trademark in the country your business was incorporated in and as you grow into other countries, look at expanding this trademark coverage. Make sure when you have your trademark, you use the “TM” on your logo which adds credibility and deters copycats from stealing your brand. Trademarks can be registered without excessive legal fees and should cost around $300.
2). Patents – be careful here. It is very easy to be poorly advised and spend a lot of time and money applying for a Provisional Patent. The law used to side with the inventor/entrepreneur who filed first. Following a change in the law, it is now the first to invent so make sure you keep detailed documentation of this process. Once approved, you can apply for a Utility Patent but costs including legal fees can exceed $10,000 very quickly.
3). Copyright – typically used when you have created something (music, art, photography). Proof of copyright can be as simple as post stamping the intellectual property to yourself in the mail and then not opening it. Alternatively, for as little as $35, you can file a copyright.
With the rise of technology companies, intellectual property has extended into computer programming code and algorithms. Whatever you can do to protect your business can only help it as you become more successful and visible to your competitors.