How to Protect Your Intellectual Property When Pitching Your Ideas To a Company - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise Magazine September/October 2018 Issue

Now, more than ever, creatives and entrepreneurs are leveraging the power of digital tools and social media apps to breathe life into their ideas. But take note, equally important to marketing your business, project, or initiative is knowing how to protect your intellectual property.

To get some insight about how to protect your work when pitching to a company or media network, we caught up with Art Steele, an IP attorney who knows firsthand what it means to play on both sides of the table. Before launching her own law practice for creatives and entrepreneurs, Steele spent the first five years of her legal career as a tax lawyer helping multi-million-dollar companies restructure their business, protect their digital content, and develop complex tax strategies.

Why should small businesses have an attorney at the start of their business?

Because business lawyers help businesses grow. Contracts save you time; time is money. Getting paid on time (because of your contract), increases your cash flow; setting clear boundaries on who owns the IP in your collaboration saves you from potential litigation. Before you start your business, a consultation with a good business attorney, just to get the lay of the land, goes a very long way and will open your eyes going forward to potential legal issues. This way, you will know when you need to bring an attorney in the loop.

Let’s talk about protecting your intellectual property. As a creative (content creator, filmmaker, author, etc.), you may want to pitch your ideas to major media networks, influencers, or brands. When it comes to protecting your ideas, what should you keep in mind?

The thing to keep in mind when you’re pitching is that ideas cannot be protected—only your expression of that idea can be protected. You can protect that expression (whether that be the name of your business, or product, or a logo, or design) by registering your work with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) or the U.S. Copyright Office. Registering your IP entitles you to certain rights and financial remedies when someone steals your work.

The other way to protect your idea during a pitch is by having the other party sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Whether or not to present an NDA depends on how far along your idea is. If you have a name, designs, sketches, or mockups, then definitely request the other party sign an NDA,; if it’s still in the early stages, it’ll be difficult to get a big brand to sign an NDA, especially if you’re pitching them.

What if a network decides to use your work without giving you proper credit?

Whenever dealing with anyone who is interested in your creative work, it’s always a good idea to document your communication. Make sure to keep a record of any emails you exchange and any documents that were sent and the date and time. This is pretty easy to do via email. If you have a phone conversation, follow up your phone conversation with an email detailing what you discussed. This way, you have proof if any issues arise.

When it comes to protecting your intellectual property, what’s a common mistake you see creatives and entrepreneurs making?

The biggest mistake creatives and entrepreneurs make is to undervalue their intellectual property, thus, they don’t protect it because they feel they’re too small and too unknown to trademark or copyright their IP. However, it’s much easier to get taken advantage of when you are a small business or solopreneur. Also, it’s easier for larger brands to see what they’re creating online, and possibly try to replicate it.

Your best course of action as a small business is to put the weight of the U.S. federal government and copyright laws behind you in protecting your creative work. You do that, partly, by registering your trademark and/or your creative work for copyright protection, and with a well-drafted contract.

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