Steps Every Founder Should Take to Protect Intellectual Property

Dana DicksonThe expression “intellectual property” can sound lofty and abstract enough that you might think it only applies to high-tech companies with specialized software or inventors of unique equipment. But, if you own a business, it applies to you. By taking a few straight-forward steps, you can protect your business and help ensure competitors cannot borrow your best ideas.

Intellectual property defined

Unlike a physical asset, such as a building, equipment or vehicle, intellectual property refers to products of the human intellect. It comes from creations of the mind born out of your own creativity and innovation. That can include everything from your business name and logo to a specialized way of making something, or your own recipe for salsa.

You can learn the ins and outs of intellectual property and how to protect your business with trademark attorney and fellow business owner, Dana Dickson, at the Global Supplier Diversity Conference (GSDC) September 23, 2021 streaming live to your location. Dickson will join a roster of outstanding speakers including senior executives from Microsoft, GSK Consumer Healthcare, the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Atlanta Hawks, successful entrepreneurs and many others in this full-day program with complimentary registration to help women and underrepresented founders protect and build their businesses.

“Often small business owners are not aware that their logos, slogans or the names of their products or businesses are assets that need to be protected. Without that awareness, those assets are vulnerable, and the business may not be able to expand,” Dickson cautions. “A fairly modest investment of time and money to register these assets up front can avoid significant headache and expense down the road.”

Types of intellectual property

There are four types of intellectual property protected by law in the United States.

Trademarks involve words, phrases, symbols and designs that identify your company and offerings. “Marks get consumers’ attention and identify you as the source of the products or services you offer. If consumers like what they got from you in the past, your marks help them find you again,” Dickson explains. That includes your business name, logo, product names, certain images and sometimes even distinguishing features, such as a specific product color or shape.

This is an area where Dickson often sees small business owners expose themselves to unnecessary expense and heartache. “Founders often start using a mark without doing a clearance search or applying to register it with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Before you invest a lot of time and money in having a logo designed, building a website and creating product packaging, it’s very important to have an attorney who specializes in trademark law search for your mark and ensure that your use of the mark won’t violate someone else’s rights and leave you vulnerable to a lawsuit,” Dickson says. Some law firms charge less than $1,000 for a search, and this step can avoid much larger expenses in the future.

The downsides to not registering your trademark are many. For example, if you want to sell your business in the future, a potential buyer likely will factor into their offer whether your marks are registered. Similarly, without a federal trademark registration, you may find that your ability to expand your business and use your marks in additional states is limited due to others’ prior use of similar marks in those places.

If you start doing business with trademarks that have already been registered by someone else, you could receive a “cease and desist” letter or even be sued. In some cases, a court could require you to pay for profits earned while using the infringing mark. “One of the common trademark myths is that you’re safe as long as you didn’t deliberately copy someone else’s mark. The question to focus on is who used this mark first?” Dickson says.

Copyright protects the substance of a creative work, such as a book, musical composition, artwork or a video. “Copyright is protection for the content of an original work of authorship,” Dickson says. With limited exceptions, if someone wants to use your copyrighted work, they need your permission to do so.

Patents often relate to scientific, engineering activities and inventions. “Patents are more about protecting how something works, or perhaps a specific process, method or design,” Dickson says. It is prudent to patent inventions before sharing them broadly if others might be able to copy them quickly.

Trade Secrets encompass information that gives you a competitive advantage because it is not generally known. “We see trade secrets often in the food and beverage space where you might have a specific recipe for a particular product,” Dickson explains. These are most often protected through the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and by limiting the number of people who can access the information.

Getting help

It can feel daunting to hire a lawyer early in your founding, but Dickson urges business owners to make the investment now to avoid larger costs down the line. “Working with an attorney who specializes in the form of intellectual property law that you need help with, and who knows all the strange little rules and exceptions is worth it because they can point out potential obstacles and help you navigate around them.”

You can also explore pro bono legal services through the United States Patent and Trademark Office and through regionally based non-profits, such as the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta and Georgia Lawyers for the Arts.

Learn more about intellectual property and how to protect your business with trademark attorney and fellow business owner, Dana Dickson, at the Global Supplier Diversity Conference (GSDC) streaming live September 23, 2021.