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 -- like supplies, equipment, buildings, and inventory --, your intellectual property contributes to the value and success of your business. So it needs to be monitored and protected.

Here's a breakdown of common types of intellectual property and tips on how you can protect these assets. 

Trademarks

Trademarks are the words, 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 in order to qualify as trademarks.

Examples:

  • Company and product names
  • Slogans and taglines
  • Logos and symbols
  • Brand colors

How you can 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, having a registered trademark can make it easier to challenge anyone who infringes on your trademark rights.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provides information on how to register your trademarks at the state or national level.

Federal trademarks last as long as you use them with the public to promote your goods or services. Trademark applications generally cost between $250 and $350 per class of goods or services. 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.

Copyrights

A copyright grants you 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 and blog articles
  • 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 their 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 they transfer the copyright through a written contract. As with trademarks, registering them officially can give you more leverage in the event of a dispute.

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 limited liability company (LLC) or other legal entity will last 95 years from the first date the work was 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 $45 to $65.

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

How you can protect them: Patent applications can be filed in the United States with the USPTO, and internationally in the patent office of the applicable country or region. U.S. utility and plant patents have a term of 20 years, while design patents have a term of 15 years. Patents 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) search existing patents and published patent applications to see if your concept has comparatively novel features. A patent lawyer can help you do a more thorough search to determine the availability of patent protection for your concept. They can also help you investigate whether any third parties have patents that could prevent you from bringing your product or service to market. 

Trade secrets

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

Examples:

  • Formulas
  • Patterns
  • Methods, techniques, and processes

How you can protect them: Though trade secrets cannot be registered, they are protected through internal policies to ensure the secrecy is maintained. Some examples of ways to protect trade secrets include internal policies that restrict access to the trade secret, employment agreements, and non-disclosure agreements. You can take legal action against those who misappropriate your trade secrets.

Get started: Put protections 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. Making them part of your business plan can help ensure nothing's missed.

Start by listing all your intellectual property assets, then 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. Finally, set deadlines for research, filing, and finalizing these steps and work toward them as you would any other business goal.

Sources: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, U.S. Copyright Office Fees, U.S. Copyright Office FAQ

Resources for Small Business

Business Plan Quick Builder is an interactive tool to help create your business plan.

Visit businessplanquickbuilder.com to get started