Everything You Need To Know About IP Law as a Business Owner

A bunch of multi-colored folder tabs lined up from front to back. A single tab is in focus and it reads “Intellectual Property.”

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Intellectual property (IP) consists of ideas and other creations of the mind. Examples can include artwork, designs, inventions, or discoveries. Intellectual property is intangible, so defining ownership can be complicated. However, there are several different options if you want to protect your ideas, designs, or methods. These include trademarks, copyrights, patents, and trade secrets. 

Protecting your intellectual property is especially important if you are starting a new business. You will need to take the correct legal steps to defend your brand and company name by filing paperwork to protect your trademark

Furthermore, if you use a specific method or process as part of your business operation, you will need to apply for a patent or take other steps, such as requiring non-disclosure agreements. All of these different steps to protect your intellectual property will provide you with legal recourse if another person or business uses your name, idea, or other IP without your consent.  

The Basics of IP Law

New business owners need to understand the basics of IP law. With this knowledge, you can decide which type of protection is best for you, how to manage your IP once you have filed the correct paperwork, and how to deal with unowned works or ideas. 

Types of Intellectual Property

There are four types of intellectual property. To better protect your business, it’s best to understand which aspects of IP law that you may need. 

  • Trademarks. A trademark is a name, phrase, design, or a general identifying factor that distinguishes your business, service, or product from your competitors. You need to trademark your brand to ensure that no one else uses it and to give yourself legal protections should someone try to steal the name. You can file for a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). 
  • Copyrights. A copyright protects your original work. It usually applies to various forms of artwork, books, music, or other images that you create. Copyright helps you prevent people from using your work without permission. Copyrights keep people from profiting from your work. These protections do not apply for general fair use such as educational or journalistic purposes, or parody.
  • Patents. Patents protect ownership of inventions, discoveries, or unique processes and methods. Patents can be essential for business owners who build their company around a unique product or process. Patent applications can also be filed with the USPTO. The application process involves proving that your invention or idea is unique and does not infringe on any existing patents. Patents last for 20 years before they need to be renewed. 
  • Trade Secrets. A trade secret could be a recipe, an algorithm, a manufacturing process, a list of business contacts, or anything else that gives you a competitive edge in your industry. You can protect trade secrets by requiring that employees or stakeholders do not disclose anything. You do this via contracts or non-disclosure agreements. 

Usage of Unowned Intellectual Property

Some intellectual property is in the public domain. This means that an image, work of art, or other types of IP is unowned. It could be in the public domain for several reasons. For example, copyright or trademark could have expired or the owner may have neglected to renew it. You need to check with the appropriate office to ensure that the work is unowned. 

The author could also explicitly state that it is in the public domain. This is common with images or artworks. If you use this type of IP, you need to abide by any rules that the author sets. For example, artists may require credit for their artwork if it’s used in marketing material. 

How IP Law Applies to Trademarking a Product 

You can buy and sell intellectual property just like physical assets. Like purchasing real estate, exchanging an active trademark requires a legal transaction. Specialized platforms can help you facilitate these deals.

While you have the option to buy someone else’s trademark or sell your own, you can also consider other strategies, such as licensing your brand.  

Buying a Trademark

You can purchase a trademark if you want to use it for your brand or company. There are several things to consider before you buy this type of intellectual property. First of all, you need to know whether the trademark is registered or not. 

If a trademark is registered with the USPTO, you need to file assignment documents to transfer ownership. The purchaser is responsible for filing subsequent renewal paperwork on time. However, once you assume ownership of a trademark, you can use it as you wish. 

Trademarks are available directly from the business using them or via specialized platforms. 

Selling a Trademark

You can also sell a registered trademark. You may need to prove that you are the owner and that the trademark is active. Furthermore, once you find a buyer, you will need to work with them to fill out and file assignment paperwork.

You can also choose to license your trademark. This option allows you to set the terms and conditions for the person or business that uses your brand. When licensing, you remain responsible for filing the paperwork with the USPTO. 

Trademark Expiration Dates

Technically, trademarks do not expire. You retain control of the trademark as long as you continue to use it for the purposes outlined in your initial application. However, there are deadlines for filing documents that prove that you are continuing to use the trademark.

The USPTO calls this paperwork “maintenance documents.” Between the fifth and sixth year after the date when you first register the trademark, you need to file a Declaration of Use (Section 8) document and provide an example of how the trademark is being used. 

You will also need to file another Declaration of Use between the ninth and tenth year after registration.

Before the tenth year, a renewal application (Section 9) is required, which is a statement of trademark use. You need to file both the declaration and renewal every ten years thereafter.

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