Entrepreneurs, whether they are independent consultants or inventors or building retail or service businesses always have questions they want to ask an expert. We rely on the opportunity to occasionally "pick the brain" of one of these experts to gain the tidbits of knowledge needed to be able to move an enterprise forward.
Every time I talk to entrepreneurs, the subject of intellectual property in the form of a patent, trademark or copyright comes up. Most entrepreneurs don't realize that trade secrets are another type of intellectual property to be protected. There always seems to be a lot of confusion around the differences between them and what, if any, type of intellectual property protection they need.
Mike Schacht, an intellectual property attorney with Schacht Law Office in Bellingham breaks it down this way:
Utility patents protect the utilitarian aspects of a product, manufacturing method, business method, or the like, while design patents cover ornamental aspects of a utilitarian object.
Trademarks' rights can be established in any word, logo, color, shape or other symbol capable of distinguishing the goods or services of one party from those of the other. Trademarks protect the goodwill of a business, but they also protect the public from being confused as to the source of goods or services.
Copyrights generally protect the expression of an idea. Copyrightable subject matter includes artistic works such as paintings, music, literature and the like, but also includes commercial works such as software and instruction manuals.
Trade secrets protect information that is capable of being maintained as a secret and for which reasonable steps have been taken to maintain the information secret. Examples of common information that can be protected as a trade secret include recipes, formulas, layout of manufacturing facilities, customer lists, supplier lists, source code and the like.
The subject of intellectual property and patents in particular is more relevant to inventors. Understanding what type of intellectual property applies to them is a critical first step to the process of taking an invention to market.
What an inventor with an idea should know before consulting with a patent attorney:
A patent application must be filed within one year of the first sale, offer for sale, public use or publication of the invention in the United States and prior to public disclosure for most foreign countries;
The United States is now under a first-to-file system, so getting an early filing date can be important;
A search is not required, but gathering as much information early in the process will allow the inventor to prevent problems from occurring in the future. The Internet search strategy is critical, and the ultimate question of patentability can be somewhat subjective. Similar searches can be performed to clear potential trademarks.
Mike offers more in-depth answers to frequently asked questions about the types of intellectual property on his website at schachtlaw.com.
No matter the enterprise, every entrepreneur should have a basic understanding of intellectual property and consider investing in protecting the elements that contribute to their competitive advantages and create value for a company.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This is the first in a monthly series about topics of interest to entrepreneurs. Lara Merriam-Smith is the program manager for NW Innovation Resource Center, a Bellingham-based organization that supports economic opportunities through entrepreneurial innovation in NW Washington. They help inventors looking to take products to market and connect new start-up businesses with resources to help them grow. For more information go to nwirc.com.
Intellectual property is this month's topic at a brown-bag lunch series of topics important to inventors and entrepreneurs.
Mike Schacht will discuss know how to protect your ideas and competitive advantage from noon to 1:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 5 at 2211 Rimland Drive, room 106. The event is free with registration at builditnw.com/events.