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What Techpreneurs Should Know About IP

October 27, 2015 - Written By Chris Yackulic

Whether you’re just at the beginning stages of developing a new tech business, or are already operating one, it’s important to be aware of how to protect your organization’s intellectual property (IP).

While you might find it a complex subject and keep putting it off til later, there are many reasons to make it a priority today. Even if you’re running an incredibly lean startup, you still need to plan for success and think about how to scale in the future.

After all, even some of the world’s largest technology businesses, like Google, Microsoft, and Apple, all ensure their IP is taken care of. In fact, one report listed the companies as having spent over $18 billion on intellectual property in a six month period, just for the voice space, let alone other areas of their business.

Whether you consider seeking protection via a trademark, patent, copyright, or trade secret, there will be a particular type of IP that’s best suited to your needs. Read on to get the rundown on what technology business owners and managers should know about intellectual property today.

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Trademarks

A trademark is one of the most common IP marks that business owners seek. It covers any names, words, symbols, logos, phrases, or other devices that are used to identify and distinguish the goods or brand of one company from that of others.

For example, you might want to trademark your company’s brand and logo as well as the specific name of your products (think, the iPhone), any marks, symbols or other designs that help to create recognition for your business (the Nike tick is an example), or any slogan or other type of phrase that you use to market, brand and sell your products and services.

Patents

A patent refers to the intellectual property that covers the invention of something. It confers upon the owner, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the “right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling, or importing the invention.” While it’s difficult to properly protect an idea, if you or someone in your business comes up with a good idea that is turned into an invention, this can be protected by a patent.

In order to receive a patent, you must be able to prove, with adequate documentation, that you came up with the original idea and design. In the past patent grants were valid only for 17 years, but that timeframe has been extended now to two decades. Owners of patents may also grant a license to other people or companies for the use of an invention or the design that created it. This is usually allowed only in return for monetary compensation.

When it comes to tech firms, the types of patents that are generally obtained are those that cover computer hardware or the physical devices in firmware.

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Copyright

While copyright may not be the most common form of intellectual property businesses seek in the tech industry, there may be times it is useful. A copyright is a form of IP protection that can be granted to people who create “original works of authorship.” These can be either published or unpublished, and applies from the time that the author creates the work.

Note that copyright covers not an idea or a subject matter, but an actual, tangible form of expression. For example, this is generally creative work like songs, books, films, or theatrical performances. Copyright protection is normally set for the lifetime of the author who created the work, plus an additional seven decades. For techpreneurs, copyright may be needed to protect a software program or other coding and documentation.

Trade Secrets

Another type of intellectual property protection is a trade secret. This form of cover is designed to protect confidential, proprietary business information that a person or a firm uses and has the exclusive rights to. Commonly discussed trade secrets are things like the recipes behind the Coke beverages or KFC chicken seasoning. In the tech industry, it might be software source code or firmware code. Google’s indexing algorithms might possibly be one of the most valuable trade secrets currently protected.

There are strict rules about what constitutes a trade secret. In order to get covered, information must be genuine and not obvious. This means that there must be a unique method of doing or creating something.

Trade secrets must also provide a business or other owner with a competitive and/or economic advantage that they want to protect and that has value to them. Such information must then be protected from disclosure in order to be covered — that is, the owner of a trade secret must exercise all due care in order to keep the data or method secret.