Protecting What’s Yours

Entrepreneurs should guard their intellectual property

In the latest step toward its goal of becoming fully paperless by 2004, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded partnership contracts on June 18 to allow electronic filing of patent applications. But even with the office going digital, there remain pitfalls that small businesses — which accounted for 18% of the patent filers in 2001 — should be aware of.

One of the most common is unfamiliarity with the legalese, which can result in losing those rights. “The processes are unforgiving if you make a mistake,” says Darcell Walker, a private practice patent attorney in Houston. “The only way to resolve them is to pay a fee or to start the process all over again.”

Safeguard Your Intellectual Properties
There are three ways to safeguard intellectual properties: patents, trademarks, and copyrights:
Trademarks — words or symbols consistently attached to goods or businesses to identify and distinguish them from others in the marketplace. They usually cost $325 per class (a particular industry) to file. This means that another business in the entrepreneur’s field cannot operate under that name, but to safeguard it from use by businesses in other industries, additional classes would have to be added.

Patents — rights granted by the government that give its holder the ability to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention “claimed” in the patent deed, provided that certain fees are paid (fees vary). “The lowest [patent application] is about $4,000 to prepare, and that goes up to $20,000 for chemical or biotech inventions,” says Ahaji Amos, a patent attorney for Thompson Coburn L.L.P., pointing out that the more complex the invention, the more it costs to protect.oo Copyrights — safeguard original works, such as music, books, or photographs and are inexpensive to file at $30. This can be done without legal assistance through the U.S. Copyright Office’s Website (http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright).

Patent experts offer the following tips to entrepreneurs seeking to protect their intellectual property:

  • Document all events, dates, and steps that you perform related to the conception and development of your idea.
  • Maintain confidentiality of the idea. Never disclose an idea to anyone without requiring that person to agree (preferably in writing) to keep the information confidential.
  • Secure the rights of anyone assisting you in the development of your idea. Get the person to agree to assign to you any rights they may accrue related to the idea.
  • Seek counsel with an attorney with experience in intellectual property matters.

For those seeking additional information, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Website (www.uspto.gov) also offers a searchable database and additional information on how to apply for patents, trademarks, or copyrights.

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