It’s a well-known fact in the business world: Your company assets are only as good as your ability to protect them. This is especially true where intellectual property is concerned. Whether it’s your company name, logo, latest invention or best-selling product, it’s imperative that you take certain steps to secure your ownership rights.
We will explore seven types of key assets in this step:
- Website Address
- Provisional Applications for Patents
- Inventor's Logs
- Confidentiality Agreements
Types of Key Assets
Website Address (domain name)
More than ever, businesses are turning to the web for both retail opportunities and online marketing. Key to establishing a website presence is securing a website domain name for your business. (An example of a domain name is startupnation.com)
There are a number of low-cost web services that will not only register your domain name, but also set up email and websites for you, complete with e-commerce capabilities.
If you have a unique name for your company or product, be sure to immediately register it. If you discover someone else has already claimed the name you want, don’t be discouraged. Often entrepreneurs allow their domain name registration to expire or are willing to sell their name to you at a reasonable price. Most domain name registration services provide contact information for domain name owners or offer a way to bid on domain names that are up for sale.
Find out more in StartupNation's 11 Steps to Create a Successful Website.
A trademark is one of the most important business assets you’ll ever own. It’s your brand name, your logo, or any other symbol that distinguishes your company or your company’s goods from those of another manufacturer. By registering your trademark you go on record as the official owner of the mark, which gives you a significant leg up in court should a dispute over your right to use the mark ever arise. This comes in handy, for example, if you discover that another person or company is hurting your business reputation or causing confusion by using your mark to sell similar or cheaper-quality goods.
An owner of an unregistered mark may indicate ownership of a mark with the symbol “TM” for a trademark, or “SM” for a service mark.
In general, generic marks do not receive trademark protection because they are so general. On the other hand, owners of a registered mark are entitled to use the registration symbol ® in connection with their mark.
It’s not uncommon for people to confuse copyrights with trademarks. Whereas trademarks are used to protect intellectual property such as company names, brands, logos and symbols, a copyright grants you exclusive legal rights to your creative work, which can include anything from literary or website content to musical or artistic compositions. In order to receive copyright protection for your work, your creation must be expressed in a tangible form such as a piece of writing or a recording. Once granted, a copyright prevents others from copying, performing or using your work without your permission.
If you have a bright idea, don’t wait for someone else to turn it into a commercial success. You should quickly protect your invention (assuming it is novel) so you can cash in first. The best way to protect your idea is to get a patent on it. A patent is a property right granted by the Government to an inventor “to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States” for a limited time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention when the patent is granted. There are three kinds of patents, including: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents.
- Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents a useful process, a machine, an article of manufacture, or a composition of matter.
- Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.
- Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plants.
A common misconception is that the patent gives its owner the right to make, use, or sell the invention. The patent only gives the owner the ability to exclude others from making, using or selling the invention. In a standard scenario, patents last for twenty years. The twenty years begins on the date that an application for a non-provisional or provisional patent was first filed. In deciding to patent your invention, we always recommend consulting a patent attorney.
Provisional Applications for Patents
A Provisional Application is a fast and easy way to temporarily protect your invention until you’re ready to commit the time and money required to submit a full patent application. Think of it as a legal placeholder.
Because the application to secure patents is a lengthy and expensive process, the USPTO created a provisional patent which allows you to temporarily protect your invention. The non-provisional application establishes the filing date of your patent application and begins the examination process. A provisional application only establishes your filing date and expires automatically after one year.
You may file a provisional application if you are not ready to enter your application into the regular examination process. A provisional application establishes a filing date at a lower cost for a first patent application filing in the United States.
A Provisional Application makes sure no one else rushes in and claims your invention while you’re busy fine-tuning your design, securing funds, or testing your idea’s market potential. A provisional application allows the term "Patent Pending" to be applied to your invention which can be useful in warding off any imitators.
But be careful. Provisional patents can come back to bite you later. You might find yourself limited or locked-in to what you describe in it, even though you’ve come up with additional improvements during your year-long provisional period.
If you go this route, we highly recommend that you at least include legitimate “claims,” a key part of a formal patent. Otherwise, you should contact an attorney to patent your invention, or at least help you complete the application .
The United States Patent and Trademark Office awards a patent to the first person who can prove they’ve invented a new product. An Inventor’s Log Book helps you establish that you were the first to develop your idea by recording the progress of your inventing. You should begin using an inventor’s log the moment you conceive of an idea and continue to keep a detailed record of your activities as you develop your idea into reality.
Creating an Inventor’s Log
In order to prove that you are the inventor of a specific invention, you should document and memorialize all information in an “inventor’s log”. U.S. Patent requires that you are the inventor of any invention claimed in a patent application and keeping an inventor’s log may prove invaluable should you ever need to substantiate inventorship. A patent log also can be valuable if you need to prove that you were the first to invent a particular invention.
The inventor’s log is literally a diary. The first entry should be posted when you conceive of your idea. This first entry should describe the invention, how you came upon it, the place, the circumstances, and any preliminary conceptual details. As you develop your invention, include in your inventor’s log all engineering and testing data, drawings, research data, as well as any information related to similar products or patents you discover. It’s also important to record the names of anybody to whom you disclose your idea and the details relating to any such disclosures or meetings.
Your log entries should be kept in chronological order with entries posted one after the other on consecutively numbered pages, written in pen, and dated. Entries can take the form of strictly text, or could be drawings, or both. If you finish an entry partway down a page, do not start the next entry on the next page, rather post entries one right after the other in contiguous order. It is also beneficial to have an unbiased witness sign and date an entry if such a witness is conveniently available. It’s important that you select a logbook with pages that cannot be added or subtracted without it being evident.
Should anyone else participate in the development of the invention, it’s very important that you detail the contribution and clarify whether or not this participation resulted in an activity of inventorship or not. In order for a patent to be valid, all inventors must be named on the application.
Keep your notebook or notebooks in a secure location, and regularly photocopy or scan entries to keep a complete second copy of the log should the original get damaged or lost. Keep the copy in a separate location.
Anytime you are considering exposing some of your company’s secrets, whether it is a customer list, business process or financial data that you want to keep out of the hands of the competition, it is critical that you safeguard this information. With a Confidentiality Agreement, also called a Non-Disclosure Agreement or NDA, you can do just that. Typically, there are two types of NDAs: “One-Way” and “Mutual.” When you hire a new employee or offer information to a potential business partner, a one-way NDA provides the protection you need in case the potential employee or business partner decides not to come onboard or engage you in business. When information is being passed both ways, each party should sign a mutual NDA.