It is becoming increasingly important for the owners and managers of small to medium sized businesses to be familiar with the business’ intellectual property (“IP”) assets and what steps to take to protect them. In several cases, small to medium sized businesses own IP in the form of trade secrets and copyrights, without even realizing it. In the following, we will explore the most common types of intellectual property.
Trademarks: a trademark is a mark used to show the source of goods or services. This is most easily understood as a company’s “brand.” Trademarks usually come in the form of a name or artistic logo, or a combination thereof, but can also include sounds and color schemes. Normally, a company has two or three marks that are worth protecting: the name of the business, the company logo, and the company tagline or slogan. Other marks used by the company can also be registered, including unique names of products or product lines.
A company’s trademarks can be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. When registered, the mark is protected throughout the United State and its territories.
Patents: a patent is basically a government granted monopoly on a given invention for a certain period of time. An invention is most often thought of as an idea or process that solves a particular problem. In order to achieve patent protection, however, the inventor should create at least one embodiment for that idea. An individual is often aware that they have “invented something” when they have come up with a device or system that allows them to perform a task more effectively or efficiently than before. In the business setting, it is often the employees working “in the field” who create patentable inventions to make company procedures run more smoothly. For this reason, employers should have a strong intellectual property provision in all employment contracts to ensure that the business retains the ownership of these inventions.
A patent is created by way of filing a patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and successfully finding allowable claims through a negotiation process between the examiner and your patent attorney.
Trade secrets: trade secrets are often ideas or procedures used by a business that is often not otherwise protectable by patent, trademark, or copyright registration. In order for trade secrets to remain protectable intellectual property, the business must take proper steps to ensure that the trade secret is kept confidential within the company. One of the best ways to protect a business’ trade secrets is to have properly drafted trade secret and confidential provisions signed by every employee or independent contractor who may come to know of the protectable information. Such provisions can be made in a separate trade secret or confidentiality agreement or can be incorporated into the employment agreement.
Copyrights: copyrights are original works expressed in a particular medium. Almost everyone can identify the more obvious copyrights, including an author’s rights to his book, an artist’s rights to her painting, or a poet’s right to her poem. Except in businesses that are heavily involved in the publishing of these types of works, business owners and managers often incorrectly believe that their company does not have to worry about copyrights. However, copyrights extend from the software used in the accounting system to the content and design of the company’s website and mobile applications. Businesses avoid copyright infringement issues through licensing contracts, employment contracts, and work-for-hire contracts.