“I discovered that there are a lot of copycats out there,” says Albright, owner of Just Sweet Enough Inc., a low-sugar dessert company in Castle Rock, Colorado. Her printer refused the request, but it underscored to Albright the importance of protecting her company’s intellectual property.
Every business has vital information that should be protected from the hands of competition, whether it’s a special recipe, unique piece of software or a distinctive slogan. “You have to look for the different aspects of your product or service that are proprietary,” says Michell L. Davis, a partner with Register Lett L.L.P, an intellectual property and entertainment law firm in Atlanta. After you identify what sets your company apart, find out which area of intellectual property law is going to provide you with the best protection. There are four major areas: trademarks, patents, copyrights, and trade secrets.
“A trademark is a way to brand your consumer product,” Davis says. “It could be a word, picture, or slogan.” Albright’s company logo is a registered trademark, as well as the names of some of her food creations. “If another company has products that are called something similar, they could try to sue you to stop making your product if you don’t have a registered trademark,” Albright says.
Trademarks are registered at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Costs can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the number of your requests and the objections you could face. Once you register your trademark, however, it helps protect your product and makes it easier to go after others who violate your brand. “You could get an infringing defendant’s profits, damages, and attorney’s fees,” says Karen Henry, an associate at the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine L.L.P. in Los Angeles who specializes in intellectual property law.
“A patent is a way to protect an idea, Davis says. “So if you have an idea for an invention, a patent is a fairly involved process where you basically disclose how the invention works in exchange for exclusive rights to keep someone else from making, using or selling that particular invention.” A patent can be expensive to obtain, but it’s important if you share your ideas with others for the purpose of seeking funding.
“A copyright protects the tangible expression of an idea,” Davis says. An idea itself can’t be copyrighted, but the physical expression of one, like a written manuscript, song CD, or picture, can be protected. It costs about $45 to register a copyright with the United States Copyright Office.
If your business uses a secret formula or recipe, you have a trade secret to protect. While you wouldn’t register it with a government organization (that would make it public knowledge), you can implement business practices to make sure it stays a secret.