4 Ways to Guard Your Business Against Copycats
Use these strategies to protect your most important investments.
If you want to monitor and protect your business from an intrusion, you buy an alarm system. If a customer uses an unauthorized credit card, you invoke firmer policies to prevent identity theft. But what do you do if someone steals your intellectual property (IP) to market your brilliance as his or her own? Protecting your business from potential poachers can be simple with a little legal know-how.
IP refers to a work or invention that is the result of your creativity. Examples include an original manuscript or song, a sketch of a design, or even a new recipe. However, to protect the invention, it must be registered as a copyright, trademark, patent, or some other legal certification that expresses your rights of ownership.
Megha Bhouraskar is a New York-based attorney who specializes in intellectual property and business planning. Here she describes four legal protections commonly used to stop copycats in their tracks.
Copyright. For those who want to protect any original work of authorship, such as a literary work, performing art, visual art, photograph, motion picture or digital content, consider filing for copyright protection. A copyright can cover both published and unpublished works. Ask your attorney to take the necessary steps to get you registered, or you can complete an application on your own by sending the appropriate fees and a copy of the work to the U.S. Library of Congress. If anyone should come along and pirate your work, a registered copyright will prove you owned it first.
Trademark. Every business needs something that makes it memorable to consumers. Usually, small business owners think of a neat logo or clever name that will succinctly explain their products and services. Protecting your words, symbols, logos, and brand name through a trademark will ensure that no other company can use it for any purpose without your consent and permission.
Remember, just because you have formed your business as a corporation or limited liability company doesn’t mean the name or image is protected until you receive your trademark registration from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Bhouraskar suggests you register sooner rather than later. For example, you can even get a trademark for a logo or symbol before you’ve decided upon your business model. “I can have this gorgeous logo and not even know when I will be in business, but I can still file that I am intending to use this while I get my business organized,” Bhouraskar says.
Patents. Registering for patents can be more complicated for entrepreneurs to manage on their own. Issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office, patents typically involve a mechanical, manufacturing, chemical, or biological invention or design.
“There’s a lot of ongoing communication with the USPTO,” says Bhouraskar. “It can go on for months. You must stay on top of it because of so many strict deadlines.” Patent services also tend to be more expensive because they require legal know-how as well as knowledge of the industry the patent application is being filed under.
Non-disclosure agreement. As you develop your business, you may also want to consider having your IP attorney provide a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), a legal document that will protect your company’s valuable, confidential information when it is shared with independent contractors, full-time employees, or investors.
Bhouraskar also suggests adding a non-circumvention agreement to these documents as well. “If you are a potential investor and I introduce you to some of my workers, a non-circumvention agreement means not only will you not take my confidential information, you’re not going to take any of my employees or contacts away and say to them, ‘come work for me instead.’”
Protecting your IP and stopping copycats from destroying your business means getting your registrations in place and your contracts signed. You may not be able to stop people from trying to poach your ideas, but being prepared today can save you a ton of legal headaches tomorrow.