You probably do not own the secret formula to Coca-Cola®, but there still might be important parts of your business – like processes, symbols, special equipment, or brand names – that you have worked hard to develop and that are very important to your company.
The things that help make your business unique and provide your competitive edge are definitely worth protecting. They can:
- Define and identify your company (names, logos)
- Attract customers (brand names, slogans, advertising copy)
- Help you deliver what your customers expect (products, processes, inventions)
- Make up a good portion of your company’s value, should you decide to sell (all of the above)
Plus, it’s no fun having your work stolen!
Fortunately, there are legal steps you can take to protect what’s rightfully yours.
Actually, you could spend three years in law school learning about all this. “Intellectual property law” is very complicated, and you should always consult a lawyer to fully understand your rights and responsibilities. But the following overview will let you know what could apply to your situation.
A trademark is a word, symbol, design, device or phrase that identifies a product. The trademark is legally owned by its inventor or manufacturer. Trademarks are identified by the symbols ™ and ®. To function as a trademark, it must be unique, when compared to competitors offering similar goods or services.
Examples of Trademarks:
Phrase – Just Do It
Name – Tide
Symbol – Starbucks logo
Device – Coke bottle
When do You Need a Trademark?
Your company’s name and logo should be trademarked. Not trademarking your name could end up costing you a lot of money to protect it, or you might even end up losing it.
Tip: You can start using the ™ symbol immediately, to alert the public that you are claiming the mark. The ® can be used after your trademark is registered by the US Patent and Trademark Office.
A patent is a right granted for an invention. In this case, an invention means a product or process that provides a new way of doing something, or that provides a technical solution to a problem.
Examples of Patents:
Microsoft Office 2013 – software
BMW hydraulic/electric braking system – auto component
Nestle Nespresso Coffee Cups – food product
Wii game system – toy
When do You Need a Patent?
Again, talk to an attorney with experience in the area, but remember that applying for and getting a patent can be a long, expensive process. Don’t rush. You might be better off just considering your invention a kind of trade secret, especially if it’s something that could not easily be copied, or if it will just be used by your company internally.
Tip: If you do plan on taking your invention to market, you have one year to start the patent process. Once you publicly disclose the invention (by selling it, displaying it at a trade show, or talking about it on your website, for example) the one-year “window” is open.
A copyright protects works of authorship. For small business purposes, this can include website content, instructional manuals, white papers, e-books, and advertising copy. While it’s true that technically, a copyright exists the moment you create original material, the copyright process announces the presence and ownership of the work. Material that is protected by a copyright is indicated by the symbol ©.
Examples of copyrighted works:
“Grow Your Business with Invoice Factoring” – e-book
Nikon D5100 Digital Camera guide – instruction manual
www.mpstarfinancial.com – website content
When do You Need a Copyright?
Small businesses in competitive industries need to make sure that information from their websites isn’t pirated. You might check your competitors’ sites once in a while to make sure your content isn’t appearing elsewhere online. You can run a check for no cost at www.copyscape.com.
Tip: Copyrighted material on your web pages should be displayed as “Copyright 2012 Joe Smith Industries,” or “© 2012 Joe Smith Industries.”
For More Great Ideas for Entrepreneurs from MP Star Financial:
Let MP Star Financial’s invoice factoring services help with your cash flow concerns. Don’t wait 30 to 45 days for payment! MP Star Financial can get funds to your account faster. Call MP Star Financial for more information at (800) 833-3765, extension 150.