Intellectual property. Most people have heard this term before, but what does it really mean to you as a small business owner? Understanding what intellectual property (IP) is and what you should do to protect yours is important to protecting your small business and maximizing its overall success.
What is intellectual property?
There are a variety of definitions for the term “intellectual property” but they all generally agree that IP is a kind of intangible property that comes from the mind. It is a result of creativity and thought, both from an artistic standpoint and a commercial standpoint as well. Intellectual property differs from traditional patentable activities in that it does not have a distinct shape, process, or form; because it is based primarily on a creative process it is sometimes hard to clearly define in a way that can be submitted for full legal protection.
What does this mean for you as a business owner? It means anything that qualifies as IP and is related to your small business should be something you identify, protect, and maintain just as you would other proprietary aspects of your small business. Most small business owners don’t think much about IP issues because they don’t necessarily understand the harm that can come from someone else violating their IP rights. For the start up company or the very small operator the risks might be rather low, but for the larger business or one with a strong online presence the risks can be elevated a great deal.
The concept of intellectual property is a relatively new one in terms of potentially being registered and given a level of legal protection. The type of registration and enforcement procedures varies tremendously, however, depending on the region or even the country where you live.
What should you do to protect your intellectual property?
In general, there are four distinct ways to protect your intellectual property rights:
- Register a patent
- Register a trademark
- Register a copyright
- Register a trade secret
In the United States this is done through the federally run United States Patent and Trademark Office (www.uspto.gov). If you run a small business in the United Kingdom then you will pursue these protections through the government run Intellectual Property Office (www.ipo.gov.uk). For those living in Australia and wanting to protect their intellectual property rights, the place to go is the Australian Government department known as IP Australia (www.ipaustralia.gov.au).
Although these avenues are available for receiving registered protection, in the real world these government entities are not set up to enforce IP in the same way they are other types of patents and copyrights. In most cases, if you believe your intellectual property has been violated or compromised in some manner then your first line of defense is to pursue a civil claim against the offending party.
To pursue a civil claim such as this, it is absolutely vital to secure the services of an attorney or solicitor with experience in this area of the law. Why? Because quite frankly, the laws and the avenues for enforcement cover such a wide array of possibilities depending on where you live, where the offending party lives, and where the violation has occurred.