Eureka! Maybe you’ve just come up with an excellent idea. It could be the next big thing that changes the market and helps people. It might even make you a fortune.
Perhaps you’re growing your small business and it needs an identity, a new name for that exciting new division or a logo to enhance your brand.
What’s the first thing you should do? Protect it. Right now.
Protecting your intellectual property (IP), defined as an original creation that can be bought or sold, is particularly important among small businesses. After all, you’re the innovative cog in the bigger machine. Research from the United States Small Business Association of Advocacy shows that small businesses create 13 times as many patents per employee than larger patenting firms.
You need to legally protect your ideas, tools and processes to avoid counterfeiting and theft of your IP – both of which are detrimental to business growth.
How can you protect your intellectual property?
There are three main types of IP rights that can help to protect you:
- Trademarks or service marks
Patents protect an invention of some kind. Broadly speaking, you could patent a process, machine or design. As a US small business, one of the big things you do is create patents – thousands of them. In fact, about 3,500 are created every week, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Trademarks or service marks
Trademarks are often referred to as your “brand.” Nike’s “swoosh” symbol is a good example. Trademarks are used to differentiate one business’s goods from others. A service mark is similar but, as its name suggests, it’s used to differentiate a company’s services. Both trademarks and service marks can be a name, symbol, phrase, sound or design.
A copyright protects original creations of intellectual work, such as a book or piece of music. As an example, the remaining members of the Beastie Boys were awarded £1.7 million in a copyright infringement case where three of their songs were used without permission in a Monster Energy drinks video that was posted on YouTube.
Why should you protect your IP?
Protecting your intellectual property is critical to your business’s growth. If you don’t protect your new product, someone could steal it and make a profit on it. If you don’t protect your brand name, another firm could try to legitimately use it alongside yours.
The Milwaukee-based small business Mactech, which makes machining tools, estimated that it lost $15,000 after a European competitor stole one of its designs, copied it and began selling counterfeit versions of it.
Protect your IP abroad
IP is particularly important when it comes to exporting. As a start-up business, you’re probably concentrating, at least for now, on the domestic US market. But think about the future. In time you’ll likely want to tap into new markets.
It’s important to remember that US patents or trademarks do not protect you in other countries. According to research from the FBI, Interpol, World Customs Organization and the International Chamber of Commerce, US companies lose between $200 billion and $250 billion every year through the sale of counterfeit goods.
That’s why it’s important to register your IP in the countries you’re thinking of moving into – to stop any counterfeiters from stealing your products. And it’s wise to register in advance, so IP protection will be in place when you need it.
Help for protecting your IP
IP protection can be a challenge for small businesses. You often don’t have the resources of bigger firms, and you may not be fully aware of all the rules and regulations involved.
For example, the USPTO says only 15 percent of small firms know they need to get IP protection for trade in other countries.
The good news is there are many sources of information, as well as some useful tools. Here are some starting points:
- Use this range of tools from stopfakes.gov.
- Read more about patents (and how to file one) from the USPTO.
- Attend an IP road show – events from stopfakes.gov, and keep an eye out for their 2015 listings.
You’ve worked hard to create your business, your ideas and your products. Be sure you have them protected, now and in the future.