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Intellectual Property

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Intellectual property largely falls into four main categories: trademarks, copyright, patents, and trade secrets. Though often overlooked by many founders when they're just starting out, intellectual property can be some of your company's most valuable assets. It is usually a good idea to budget some early funding to lock down your IP before it's too late.

A trademark most commonly refers to a word or a design that functions as a designation for your goods or services. The best way to protect your company’s rights is by filing a trademark application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This filing can grant you federal trademark rights that are enforceable nationwide and even in some places around the world. You can file for a trademark application after you've already begun using the trademark on your goods or services, or you can file a special “intent to use” application for a trademark you intend to start using in the near future.

Unfortunately, the USPTO does not have a simple trademark filing procedure, and it is recommended that you retain an experienced trademark counsel to oversee this process. Armed with valid trademark rights, you can then prevent others from using trademarks that are confusingly similar to yours and protect the goodwill of your brand.

Copyright protects original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium. This usually applies to writing, visual arts, sound recordings, and other works of creative expression. Copyright does not protect ideas. Obtaining a copyright registration is very easy and can be done without an attorney through the U.S. Copyright Office. Once you obtain a copyright registration, you have additional rights that can be enforced against potential infringers.

Keep in mind, however, that there is a complicated and ever-evolving legal body that addresses copyright infringement. Just because someone copies another's copyrighted work does not mean they are automatically liable. Accused infringers can assert a fair-use defense and argue that their use was in fact permissible under the law. If you believe your original work, copyrighted or not, has been infringed, speak to a copyright attorney about your options. Likewise, if you are accused of copyright infringement, we would also strongly recommend speaking to a lawyer experienced in these matters.

A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The right granted is actually the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, or importing the invention. Utility patents cover any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter. Design patents cover new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture. Patent applications, while costly, can often be the only means of preventing a competitor from stealing your unique product or design. If you believe you have a patentable invention, speak with a patent attorney about your options.

Trade Secrets
Though not often thought of as traditional intellectual property, trade secrets are just as critical to consider when you are building your business. Trade secrets are generally considered to be any confidential business information that provides an enterprise with a competitive edge. This can include manufacturing or industrial secrets and commercial secrets.

If your company considers something to be a trade secret, you must take deliberate steps to protect those trade secrets. They must be treated as highly confidential, cannot be publicly known outside the company, and must be vigorously protected from exposure. Confidentiality agreements, non-disclosure agreements, and other restrictive covenants can all be used to protect such critical information. 

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