As a business owner, you manage many assets on a daily basis, but you may be overlooking an important one: intellectual property.

Your intellectual property includes the intangible assets you create for your business, such as names, designs, and automated processes. And just like tangible possessions, your intellectual property needs to be monitored and protected.

Here's a breakdown of four common examples of intellectual property and tips on how you can protect these assets. You can learn more about trademarks and patents at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and about copyrights at the U.S. Copyright Office.

1. Trademarks

Trademarks are the names, phrases, and symbols that differentiate your brand from others in your industry. They must be distinctive and used in commerce to sell or promote a product or service.

Examples: Words, symbols, names, colors, or sounds that identify where your goods and services come from.

How to protect them: Trademarks may be registered with the federal government or your state government. Federally registered trademarks protect your rights throughout the U.S., while state-registered trademarks protect your rights only within the state's territory.

While you're not required to register a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to protect your trademark nationally, having a registered trademark can make it easier to challenge anyone who infringes on your trademark rights.

Federal trademarks last as long as you use them with the public to promote your goods or services. Trademark registration generally costs between $225 and $400 (not including lawyers' fees). To see if your desired trademark is available, you can begin searching the USPTO website or with a general internet search. A trademark lawyer can help you do a more detailed search to determine the availability of your desired trademark.

2. Copyrights

A copyright grants legal rights to anything you create that expresses or embodies an idea. It gives you exclusive rights to copy, distribute, reproduce, display, and license the work.

Examples:

  • Software
  • Architectural designs
  • Graphic arts
  • Video and sound recordings
  • Books
  • Databases

How you can protect them: Like trademarks, you have some rights to your original work without registering the copyright at the U.S. Copyright Office. However, registering can give you more leverage if you ever need to take an infringer to court. For instance, if an employee writes an article or takes a photo within the scope of his employment, the employer is the copyright owner automatically. However, an independent contractor who writes an article or takes a photo will be the copyright owner of that asset (unless he transfers the copyright through a written assignment agreement).

A copyright empowers you to profit from your creative assets. You can sell your copyrighted assets and lease them in exchange for license fees and royalties.

A new copyright owned by an individual typically lasts 70 years after the death of the copyright owner. A copyright owned by a corporation or other legal entity will last 95 years from the first date the work is used with the public. You can file to register a copyright with the United States Copyright Office. The current online application fee for basic registrations is $35 to $55.

3. Patents

Patents are granted for new, useful inventions, and they will give you the right to prevent others from making, using, or selling your invention.

Examples:

  • Utility patents: For tangible inventions, such as machines, devices, and composite materials, as well as new and useful processes
  • Design patents: For the ornamental designs on manufactured products
  • Plant patents: For new varieties of plants

How you can protect them: Patent applications can be filed with the USPTO in the United States, and internationally in the patent offices of the applicable country or region. Utility and plant patents have a term of 20 years, while design patents have a term of 15 years. They require a nonrefundable filing fee, along with issue, service, and maintenance fees. This can add up to thousands of dollars, but some small businesses qualify for discounts.

Before submitting your patent application, you can (but are not required to) use the USPTO database to search existing patents and published patent applications to see if your concept has comparatively novel features. A patent lawyer can also help you do a more thorough search to determine the availability of patent protection for your concept. The patent lawyer can also help you investigate whether any third parties have patents that could prevent you from bringing your product or service to market. 

4. Trade secrets

A trade secret is a piece of confidential business information whose secrecy gives you an advantage over your competitors.

Examples: Formulas, patterns, techniques, or processes that are not known or readily attainable by others.

How you can protect them: Though trade secrets cannot be registered, they are protected by staying secret. Ways to keep a trade secret under wraps include creating a policy that explains who can access your trade secrets and how they're protected, having new employees sign nondisclosure agreements before granting them access to secrets, and keeping staff up-to-date on your policies with yearly training. You can take legal action against those who misappropriate your trade secrets, but you must be able to prove the secret was obtained through illegal means.

Including intellectual property in your business plan. 

Intellectual property rights can help you establish your brand identity, profit off your unique assets, and prevent others from using your creations.

When creating a business plan, it's important to consider which assets need to be protected. Budget for the time and money you'll need to properly secure the rights to your creations, and outline how you plan to protect your intellectual assets.

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