Small business owners are innovative, passionate, and creative. You see the world differently, which is why you were willing to take a risk, quit your day job, and
How to protect a business idea
The first step to protecting your business idea is to write down your processes. Make sure to go to extra lengths to document all creative works that your company creates from scratch. And, keep records of these documents in a safe location.
I have been an entrepreneur for over 30 years. Trust me, I’ve learned that protecting a business idea is of the utmost importance. When you have an epiphany and create something unique to your business, you don’t want to leave the door open for problems down the road.
There are three types of intellectual property protection you can take advantage of:
If you don’t learn how to protect your business idea, you face getting copied by a competitor or sued for unknowingly infringing on someone else’s intellectual property. You could wind up paying thousands of dollars in legal fees. Find out how to avoid sticky situations like these by taking a look at what each of these protections can do for your company.
Copyrights are forms of protection for original works like books, digital content (computer programs, blogs, websites), music, and movies. A copyright protects how things are expressed, not the idea itself.
With a copyright, you will use the symbol © to show that nobody can take your work. You are not required to register it. But, you may want to register a copyright to create a public record. To file an infringement lawsuit, you need to register the copyright first.
If you obtain a copyright after January 1, 1978, you don’t have to renew it. Copyrights generally last for the life of the creator plus 70 years, so you don’t need to worry about it after you obtain one.
A patent is protection for an invention. An invention can be a new product or process of doing something. With a patent, nobody else can create or sell the invention you have patented.
You must apply for a patent. If your patent application gets rejected, you could tweak the language in your application and reapply. Once granted, patents last for a limited time. Be aware that you need to pay maintenance fees throughout the life of your patent.
There are three types of patents you might consider applying for: utility, design, and plant patents. For most small businesses, you will want a utility or design patent.
A utility patent protects a new and useful machine, article of manufacture, process, or composition of matter. For example, if you develop a new mop, you would apply for a utility patent. This patent can last up to 20 years.
Design patents are used to protect new and original designs for a product. It protects the way something appears. For example, you might have a design patent on the look of a lamp your company creates, but not on all lamps.
A plant patent is useful if you create or discover a new plant species.
A trademark is a form of business idea protection for things like your business’s name, logo, or even mission statement. You use a trademark (™) to distinguish your company from others. Or, you can use a service mark (SM) to trademark your services. These symbols represent that your business brand (including your products and services) are your own.
You can have unregistered or registered trademarks. You are not legally required to register your trademark, but it might save you some trouble if you do.
An unregistered trademark is when you create and use a trademark for your business but do not register it with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
A registered trademark offers more legal protection, as no other business can use it. You register it with the USPTO and use the symbol ® to show it is registered. With a registered trademark, you are protected in all 50 states. No other business can take whatever you have trademarked.
Trademark registration lasts for 10-year periods, but you can renew it to last another 10 years. You can continue renewing it every 10 years for as long as you’d like, as long as you meet the filing requirements.
Before creating and using a trademark, you need to search the USPTO’s database to make sure it hasn’t been registered already. Using a trademark that has already been registered is classified as infringement, so be sure to do your research!
If your trademark is unregistered and someone comes along and uses the same trademark and registers it, you can no longer use yours (even if you created it first). This is why it might benefit you to register your trademark.
Should you protect your ideas, products, and services?
Protecting your business with patents, copyrights, and trademarks isn’t necessarily required, but it could be helpful in ensuring your business concepts are protected from competitors or startups.
You might need to pay application, maintenance, or renewal fees to protect your intellectual property. These fees can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Consider whether these fees will pay off for your business or not.
Of course, paying for intellectual property protection isn’t your only solution to protecting your business. You can protect your business through non-disclosure agreements and noncompete agreements, for example. If your employees sign non-disclosure or noncompete agreements, they are not able to share confidential information about your business.
Talk with a professional, like an attorney, for more help. They can provide advice and help you through the process. And, check out the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or U.S. Copyright website for more information and to register patents, trademarks, and copyrights.