Written By Attorney Joe Boucher
The question of how to protect intellectual property (“IP” if you’re hip) can make even the most confident business owners break out in a cold sweat. But IP is the lifeblood of startups and established businesses alike, and understanding and managing the rights associated with it is often the first step to building a successful company.
Many entrepreneurs automatically associate IP with patents and, by extension, nightmarish visions of endless litigation and crushing legal fees. Fortunately, IP is much more than just patents, especially for young companies following a leaner, more cost-conscious model.
The reality in today’s rapidly changing startup landscape is that most companies simply don’t need patents to protect their brands, and in many cases wouldn’t meet the qualifications set forth by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) anyway. Trademark and copyright protections are often more appropriate – and virtually always considerably cheaper to maintain – than patents.
Startups live and die by their ability to create high-quality work product, provide useful services to their customers, and establish and market themselves under a distinctive identity. The look and feel of a company’s products and the content of what it offers customers are elements of intellectual property that fall under trademark and copyright law, rather than patents.
Fortunately, many trademark and copyright protections, unlike patent owner rights, are automatic and do not require extensive (and expensive) steps to obtain. Merely using a company name, logo, slogan, etc. entitles company owners to certain presumed rights with respect to those marks. Similarly, the process of creating some original work grants the creator certain automatic rights under copyright law.
Entrepreneurs can, and often should, take additional steps to register their trademarks with the USPTO, but even that process is far less onerous than applying for a patent. Likewise, registering copyrights is a relatively inexpensive, streamlined process that may be appropriate for certain materials.
The world of IP is much more expansive than just patents, yet far more accessible than a lot of people think. Entrepreneurs may be best served by looking past patent prosecution to how to maximize the protections afforded to them by trademark and copyright law.