Intellectual Property Law for Small Businesses: Here’s What You Need to Know

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Intellectual property laws protect the intangible assets of your business: your writing, your inventions, and your designs. While these are non-physical items, they are probably one of your most valuable business assets. So you can imagine how vitally important it is for business owners to know the laws and use them to their advantage.

These terms and the laws can be confusing so I have I’ve put together a quick FAQ to give you a quick start education on how to legally protect your business’s property.

The Basics of Intellectual Property

What is USPTO?

USPTO stands for United States Patent and Trademark Office. It is the federal agency that grants US Patents and registers trademarks.

What are patent rights?

Patents are probably the best-known category of intellectual property. They protect inventions, formulas, machinery, and processes.

When you have issued a patent, you are referred to as a patent holder.

You are granted the right to exclude others from making, using or selling your invention or design throughout the United States, as well as the right to prevent others from importing the invention into the US.

What is a utility patent?

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A utility patent protects the way something is “used”, and the process for “how” it is used.

The patent protects the use of your invention for up to 20 years. Thus utility patents can cover products, processes or machines.

Sometimes this type of patent is called a “patent for invention”. These patents are very valuable assets since they give creators exclusive commercial rights to their technology which gives them a strong competitive advantage in the marketplace.

What is a design patent?

A design patent protects the way something looks. Its appearance and “ornamental” design as long as the item also has function and is not merely decorative in nature.

Design patents are used to safeguard industrial designs such as jewelry, furniture and beverage containers.

The most famous design patent is that of the distinctive curved Coca-Cola bottle that was issued in 1915.

What is the difference between utility patents and design patents?

A utility patent is most likely what you’ll need to protect your intellectual property. They are the most common type of patent filed with the U.S. Patent Office. They can provide broad, strong protection.

Meanwhile, a design patent can be fairly easy for unscrupulous competitors to work around simply by changing the appearance of a product.

However, a design patent has a couple of advantages.

It is cheaper and faster to obtain than a utility patent. A utility patent routinely takes 2-3 years to obtain, while a design patent takes more like 1-2 years.

While you are unlikely to choose a design patent over a utility patent, it’s worth asking your lawyer to look into it just in case it can save you some time and money. Likewise, occasionally your best bet will be to file BOTH types of patent.

What is “patent pending” and how do I get it?

“Patent pending” is a phrase that you can write on your marketing materials, your website and even your products themselves – once you’ve applied for a USPTO patent.

It’s useful while waiting for a patent since it warns competitors that they might be playing with fire if they try to copy you.

How do I apply for a patent?

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You apply for a patent via the USPTO website. However, be warned that it is a complex and complicated procedure.

For the best chance of an accepted patent, I highly recommend you see someone specializing in intellectual property rights. 

If I have a U.S. patent, do I need to worry about the rest of the world?

Simply put: yes. Intellectual property rights need to be gained in each country you operate in – and each country has different laws.  

To help US inventors and businesses the Patent Cooperation Treaty was created which is adhered to by over 124 countries and facilitates the filing of patent applications for the same invention in the member countries.

What is a trademark?

The familiar “™” symbol denotes “trademark.”

A trademark protects things like business names, logos, slogans, color schemes and even packaging shape. A trademark is recognized across the States.

A small business owner needs to at least consider trademarking their company name. Importantly, this is NOT automatically done when you register your business with the state.

How do I trademark my company name?

First, check the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) to make sure nobody else has registered your company name.

Next, complete an application form   

What are copyrights?

Copyright law protects your creations. Most commonly, this means images (illustrations and photographs) and words (copy, books, and even speeches).

Copyright is perhaps the easiest part of intellectual property law, as it automatically comes into effect. You don’t need to register each photograph or article you produce.

However, if you ever want to bring someone to justice for copyright infringement, you will need to register the material.  

A small business owner needs to be aware of copyright not just for their own benefit, but also to avoid infringing it.

Many small business owners fall into the trap of including copyrighted images or music on their advertising materials or website.

While this can seem tempting, the punishment is steep. Being found in infringement of copyright can land you a penalty of over $10,000.

About The Author

Marsha Kelly is a serial entrepreneur who has done time in corporate America, selling her first business for more than a million dollars. She has learned what products and services work in business today, and she shares her experiences on her blog Best4Businesses.

Intellectual property laws protect the intangible assets of your business: your writing, your inventions, and your designs. So you can imagine how vitally important it is for business owners to know the laws and use them to their advantage. Here are the basics:

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