I hear this phrase frequently as an intellectual property attorney. But it’s rare that the phrase is followed by an explanation as to why the person believes they need intellectual property protection. Intellectual property refers primarily to patents, trademarks, trade secrets, and copyrights. There are many “do it yourself patent application” tutorials and “inventor help” businesses, legitimate and otherwise that tell businesses and individuals that they need a patent in order to be successful. Apocalyptic visions are created, of competitors working through the night in secret workshops, just so they can rip-off your idea. People are then told that obtaining a patent, trademark, or copyright will protect the ideas from all nefarious competitors.
The truth is that patents are not a one-size-fits-all solution to protecting any idea. There are several forms of intellectual property protection. The type of coverage you need depends on the nature of your idea and your business. It may take multiple forms of protection, obtained at strategic times and places, in order to properly protect you. Developing an intellectual property coverage plan for your product or business involves a great deal of legal strategy and it’s important to ask a licensed patent attorney about it to help you through the process. The best thing to ask your attorney is not “How do I get a patent?” but instead “What type of coverage do I need, and when do I need it?”
Intellectual property is property you can’t touch or move. It is ideas, works of art, stories, recipes, and other creative endeavors. There are four types of intellectual property:
1) Patents – protect new products, processes, compositions of matter, and articles of manufacture. This generally means protection or physical products and methods of making or using the products. Patent rights prevent others from making or selling your invention.
2) Trademarks – protect business and product names. This keeps competitors from making the same product and putting your name on it.
3) Copyrights – protect artistic works such as music, paintings, poetry and even recipes. Copyrights prevent people from copying your artistic works and selling without your permission.
4) Trade Secrets – Protect business secrets such as soda recipes, business strategies, and things that can’t be published.
Do any of these sound like they pertain to you? I’m sure more than one of these categories applies your product or business. Depending on the nature of your product or business, you might need a patent and a trademark, you might need a trade secret, or you may need none of these. Just because a type of intellectual property can help you doesn’t mean that you need it to operate your business or sell your product. Obtaining a trademark can take a year or more, a copyright can take several months to a year, and obtaining a patent can take several years. In some cases you can start the business before you obtain the right coverage, in other cases you really need to file for coverage before going public.
How do you determine what to file ? How to file it and when to file it? The best way to ensure you’re properly protected is to consult an attorney. A simple introductory consultation should give the attorney a good idea about your needs and the appropriate time frame.
If you decide to go it alone, purchase a few books on intellectual property filings. Don’t rely on websites and invention businesses alone. These are helpful resources, but could end up costing you significantly more than an attorney if you are taken advantage of by scam artists. Remember that intellectual property applications are legal proceedings! If you decide to represent yourself, you’ll need to do just as much work to prepare as you would to represent yourself in a court trial. Set goals for yourself and before you file determine the points at which you will be “in over your head” and seek professional assistance. Good Luck!