What should I do first? A great question from a small business owner

by Intellectual Property Attorney Bill Honaker, the IP Guy

A new business owner recently asked, “With limited time and resources, what should I do first?”

As a small business, protecting your intellectual property (IP) is crucial for ensuring the success and longevity of your company. Without proper IP protection, your branding, unique ideas, and inventions could be easily lost or stolen by competitors. The results can be catastrophic.

With so many forms of IP protection available, it can be difficult to know where to start, or which ones are the most important for your small business. In this article, we’ll explore some of the key forms of IP protection that every small business owner should consider.

Your Identity

First and foremost, it’s important to establish a good business identity. Your brand includes everything the customer uses to recognize you as the source for the goods and services you offer, and the goodwill they create.  Your brand will likely become your most valuable business asset. Think about brands like Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, each with valuations in the billions.

Your brand needs to be available, protectable, (and ideally) a domain name, preferably a dot-com.  If it’s important to have the domain name, start with a list of potential names and check whether the domain is available. There are numerous websites where you can check availability of a domain name, including Register.com, GoDaddy, Domain, and Squarespace.

Next make sure your brand can be protected and that a trademark is available. This will require a trademark attorney who can quickly tell you whether or not your brand can be trademarked, and perform a search to verify it’s available. Not all words can be protected, and not all words are good trademarks. You don’t want to start your business with a brand that others can copy, or get close to, and confuse your customers. And you don’t want to get sued because your brand is too close to another’s trademark. These articles are a good place to learn more: How to Choose a Great Trademark, How to Do a Trademark Search, and How Do I Trademark a Name.

Your brand can also include your company’s name, logo, and any slogans or taglines that you use. It can even include certain shapes and colors.

You get extra protection by registering your trademarks with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Federal Registration helps prevent others from using your brand without your permission. Federal Registration also acts as free policing mechanism to discourage others from adopting your trademark or something similar. Generally, someone looking to adopt a trademark will start by reviewing the USPTO Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) for availability. This is the first place your trademark attorney will check to see if your brand is available. If they see a problem, they’ll advise you to select a different trademark. Federal Registration will help you establish a strong and recognizable brand, and ensure that customers know they’re dealing with the real, authentic version of your business.

Copyrights are another crucial form of IP protection for small businesses. Copyrights protect creative works such as articles, songs, videos, and photographs. If you create marketing materials, catalogues, websites, or any of these types of materials for your business, it’s important to register them with the United States Copyright Office. If you register in a timely manner, you’re eligible for statutory damages of $750 to $30,000, and up to $150,000 at the Court’s discretion for any copying of your works without your permission. The Court can also award your attorney fees. Read my article How to Copyright Your Creative Work for more information. This gives would-be copycats a powerful incentive to avoid imitation.

In addition to trademarks and copyrights, small businesses should also consider protecting their innovations and inventions through patents. A patent is a legal monopoly that allows the inventor to exclude others from making, using, or selling their invention for 20 years. This can be a powerful tool for small businesses to prevent competitors from copying your unique products or processes.

Please be aware that it’s best not to disclose your invention before you file. The United States requires that a patent application be filed within one year of offering your invention for sale, selling it, describing it in a printed publication, or using it in public. Most other countries don’t give you the one-year grace period. In those countries, public disclosure will prevent you from getting a patent. Small errors in process can be very costly, so you will need a patent attorney to prepare and file your patent application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Finally, trade secrets can also be a valuable form of IP protection for small businesses. Trade secrets refer to information that is not generally known and provides a competitive advantage. Examples of trade secrets include recipes, formulas, customer lists, and marketing strategies. By keeping this information secret, and protecting it through non-disclosure agreements, small businesses can prevent others from gaining access to and using their valuable information.

Overall, it’s clear that protecting your intellectual property is essential for the success of your small business. By registering your trademarks, copyrights, and patents, and protecting your trade secrets, you can ensure that your unique branding, ideas, and inventions are safe from imitation or theft by competitors. This will give you a valuable competitive advantage and help your business thrive.

The Takeaway

First, secure your brand. If resources are limited, use them to hire a trademark attorney to ensure you have a strong brand for the life of your business. You don’t want to have a successful launch and then learn that you have to change your name or fight an expensive lawsuit. Establishing a new identity will destroy the momentum you’ve created, kill any goodwill you’ve built, and at best, confuse customers. Trade secrets are also important and cost nothing to protect. You just have to keep them a secret.

Bill Honaker, The IP Guy

About the Author:

Bill Honaker, “The IP Guy” is a former USPTO Examiner, a partner with Dickinson-Wright, and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Assets – How to Maximize the Hidden Value in Your Business. To download a sample chapter, click here.

To get answers to your questions click here to schedule a time to talk, email Bill@IPGuy.com, or give him a call at 248-318-7015.