Many entrepreneurs first begin to think very seriously about intellectual property law after they’ve suffered a damaging loss.
Business and commerce now increasingly revolves around information and ideas, not just in advertising and innovative technology, but anywhere ideas are hatched and data is used.
A careful inventory of the intellectual property (IP) a company uses, owns and generates, and how it’s managed and protected, may be as basic to a business model as locks on the door and fire extinguishers on every floor.
Four categories of IP and their safeguards
The IP your business owns is an asset like cash and real estate, even if its value is hard to put a number on. Protecting and managing this asset starts with an inventory. An attorney experienced in IP helps because IP is often understood as an asset only after it’s been stolen and fought over.
The four most common categories of IP are:
- Trade secrets
This is really a list of the instruments used to protect each type, as members of the Texas State Bar and the Texas Young Lawyers Association point out.
Patents are a license issued by the government authorizing a person or business to protect their right to profit from inventions and designs for functional things like machines, tools and gadgets. Certain lawsuits have famously involved controversial patents on seemingly basic methods of doing things on the internet.
A trademark, in the literal sense, is symbol, name or phrase used to identify a business entity and products it produces. Because trademarks are legally protected against unauthorized use, they guard against the company’s customers being unfairly poached by a competitor. They also allow a company to control its reputation for the quality of its own products.
A copyright, obviously, is the right to copy a creative work. Only the copyright owner can choose to authorize the use (including but not limited to copying) of some creative form of expression such as literature, music, drawings, software, and so on.
Trade secrets are information (or a way of protecting information) not generally known or easily figured out that provides a business with some competitive advantage. Perhaps obvious examples include the herbs and spices in a chicken recipe, the algorithms of an ecommerce site that suggests additional purchases, lists of customers and their contact information.