How to Protect Your Creative Ideas as a Startup
Ah yes, creative ideas— the backbone of any business.
You may have a stellar team and a fantastic work ethic (all crucial things), but innovation is key.
Sadly, good ideas can be stolen. Sharing your idea in interviews or a simple social post can potentially reach millions, but the downside is that without taking precautions, competitors can copy your ideas, which unfortunately can be fairly common.
So how do you empower yourself as an entrepreneur? What can you do to protect your intellectual property?
In this guide, we’ll go over what intellectual property is, how copyrights, patents, and trademarks work, and what you can do to safeguard for the future.
What Is Intellectual Property?
First things first, what is Intellectual property?
Intellectual property (or ‘IP’ for short) are your company’s inventions. This includes product innovation, patents, copyrights, trademarks, logos, art, general designs, and more.
How to Protect Your Intellectual Property
As mentioned, business ideas and any other forms of intellectual property can range from a logo design to iterations of existing products to brand new physical products. If you plan to enter the marketplace with a creative new idea or design, it's a good idea to take the steps to legally protect it when possible.
There's a few ways to make your intellectual property legally belong to you and your business. Below we’ll discuss how to protect your IP and which protections you should apply for based on your company.
The US Copyright Act protects the original work for the creator. Copywriting is normally used for pieces of original art including literary works, design, songs, movies and even extends to movements or choreography. To file for a copyright, your property must meet 3 criteria:
- It must be original
- It must be creative
- It must be fixed (meaning it has a set period of time in which the copyright is legally enforceable).
You can submit your copyright through the U.S. Copyright Office website. Here you can find useful resources on getting started and even search previous copyrights to ensure you’re not infringing on another entity’s intellectual property before submitting your own.
Copyrighted works can give you legal backing when it comes to intellectual property infringement. With a copyright protection, your work can’t be duplicated throughout your lifetime and any joint partner’s lifetime plus an additional 70 years. Anonymous copyrights have a longer-term, at 90 years from the copyright filing, or 120 years from the creation of the idea. After a copyright expires, it will then become public domain property or property that can be used by anyone - but can never be purchased or owned by a private entity.
Understanding Trademarks & Service Marks
Trademarks and service marks are indicators that can be used to signify an original logo, brand name, catchphrase, service name or product name. Generally, a trademark is used with brand names or logos that offer a product, and service marks are used for businesses that offer a service. Often the trademark symbol (™) is used as a general term for both trademarks and service marks.
Here’s where trademarks and service marks get a little complicated. It is legal to use the ™ or ℠ marks on your business name and logo without going through the legal trademark process. Although there's no legal process needed to ™ your logo or brand name, it is good practice to search the trademark office to be sure you’re not infringing on anyone else’s brand name or logo. This is referred to as “common law” and offers some protection of logo or branding in your geographic area and adding the symbols might ward off an intellectual property thief.
If you want to legally trademark your business name and logos the process can take 3 or 4 months, and it's recommended to hire an attorney to help facilitate the process. The benefit of trademarking is that the name, symbols or logos you trademark will then be registered with the USPTO (US Patent and Trademark Office). Your trademark will last 10 years with options to renew, protection is nationwide and you can use the ® symbol on your products or services.
Unlike the ™ and ℠ symbols, the ® symbol can only be used on trademarks that have finalized the process of trademark registration through the USPTO. This is the highest level registration in the United States. A trademark attorney can guide you through the 3-4 month process of registering your trademark and protecting your IP rights.
Your attorney can help determine if there are any conflicts with your trademark nationwide and then start the process. The cost to register a trademark can vary greatly depending on the attorney you retain and the number of items you'd like to trademark. According to USPTO, the application can cost between $250-$350 per item, plus attorney fees and ongoing trademark registration fees.
While your registered trademark offers you trademark protection, it is up to the business to police other businesses that might try to use your intellectual property.
Registering for a patent is the process of owning your new invention or process. Patents are broken into 3 categories:
Utility Patent: Used for anyone who creates a new process of completing a task, a machine, manufactured, and any new or use for their existing utility patent.
Design Patent: This type of patent is used for any new and unique design of an object either useful or ornamental.
Plant: Reserved for inventors who create a distinct plant variety.
The patent process normally takes around 2 years to complete and can be done by yourself, with an attorney or by a pro bono patent attorney.
A registered patent gives the owner the right to stop the production of any competitor who is duplicating their invention. Like trademarks, it is up to the person or business to keep a watchful eye on competing businesses who may use their patented invention, design or plant variety.
Patents have terms that expire at 20 years maximum but are never less than 17 years. The owner of a patent will typically have options to maintain their patent throughout the company’s lifetime.
Protecting Your Network
It’s possible your intellectual property isn’t out in the open yet — but poor security implementations can leave you vulnerable to theft before you have a chance to legally protect your intellectual property. This can happen if a competitor gains access to your files, designs documents, and more through a vulnerability in your network security. Here are some strategies to help protect your hardware and software from getting security vulnerabilities:
1. Invest in Virus/ Malware Protection
Whether you're a PC or Mac user, connecting to the web can put you at risk to harmful malware or viruses. Historically Windows has held the majority of the market making the operating system attractive to virus and malware creators, but that doesn’t mean MacOS is in the clear.
Every business owner should have malware and virus protection installed and kept up to date on all work devices. The rule of thumb is to only install directly from the provider’s website or hardcopy of the software and always check with your computer’s manufacturer to verify the program is approved.
2. Only Use Secure Networks
Hopping on a shared network to stream a tv show, browse social networking or read the latest news is by and large safe to do. For business purposes, you should always use your own private network.
According to Norton, cybercriminals have become experts in stealing user data, including financial information from public wifi networks. If you need to work on the go, be sure to use your mobile hotspot or invest in an external hotspot. If you don’t have access to the above options install a VPN to encrypt your user data to help prevent access to hackers.
3. Keep Your Software Up-to-Date
Windows and macOS have improved as far as built-in user protections. Technology companies routinely evaluate the current cybersecurity climate and make critical enhancements to their software, helping to defend against potential threats. Those seemingly annoying updates are worth taking the time to install.
If you are short on time, plan ahead and wait until the end of your workday or overnight to make updates to any software.
4. Update Passwords Regularly
As a business owner, it's likely that you're accepting payments, have several social channels, and have multiple software applications. Having the same username and password for every channel might be convenient, but it can leave you vulnerable on multiple platforms.
Password management services like 1Password allow you to keep all of the convenience without the serious security holes of sharing your passwords.
What Can You Do If Your Intellectual Property is Stolen?
It’s up to the business owner to routinely check for infringement of intellectual property. Setting up alerts in Google and growing your professional network are a couple of ways to stay on top of the competition. If your work or creative ideas are stolen, here are the steps you can take to bring awareness to the theft, though it's up to you to determine what works for your individual business.
1. Reach Out to Customers Immediately (If Desired or Needed)
If you have evidence of intellectual property theft that affects your customers, it may be suitable to reach out to your customers and professional network as soon as possible. Write a message that’s clear, indicates facts and is free of hateful or aggressive language. After you and your team have reviewed your messaging, reach out to your mailing lists, social media and post to your website. If your current customers are so inclined to share what’s happened, the news could reach the larger brand sooner.
2. Send a Cease & Desist Letter
Drafting a formal letter to the company informing them of the issue can help. If you're able to retain legal counsel, get in contact with an attorney you trust to draft and send the cease and desist letter. If legal advice is not within scope, you can find free cease and desist templates online.
Though you should always get personalized legal or professional advice before making these decisions, generally your options would be to contact the infringing company directly by navigating their site, contacting, via social media or calling. You may also want to consider sending a physical letter through the mail. If you decide to send a physical letter, be sure to send it certified mail and obtain the tracking number of the cease and desist letter. Many times business owners send several letters before garnering a response.
3. Understand the Risk
Going up against an industry giant can be risky and intimidating. It’s important to weigh the risk of fighting a larger business or corporation. Are you willing to spend the time or money fighting? Have you done everything to protect your intellectual property?
Resolution of these matters can often be drawn out. They typically require a large amount of your time, capital, and there aren't any guarantees you'll get to a result you're happy with. Be sure you have the right expectations and input before moving forward.
4. Seek Legal Advice
Do your research on intellectual property lawyers in your area and conduct several interviews to choose a lawyer that aligns with your goals. Ask for references and if possible, details on recent cases results.
Once you have decided on legal counsel, be sure to set up milestones and document time spent on litigation. This can protect you from being overcharged by your lawyer but can also add weight to your case if you end up in court.
Be Proactive About Intellectual Property Protection
Early IP protection is key when it comes to owning a small business. Whether you’re an artist creating works of art, a startup founder, or an inventor creating the next household name, having intellectual property protections in place can give you a better chance of prevailing, while not having them can mean you're potentially more likely to have your ideas stolen. Everything in today’s digital world is more easily shared, or stolen, so ensure you’ve taken the proper steps to protect yourself and your business.