Whether you are an owner of an established business or a budding entrepreneur working on a start-up, understanding how you can protect your business ideas is key to making your company attractive to investors, securing funding, growing the company and ensuring the longevity of your business.
Depending on the type of idea that you have, the state of the idea, and the amount of money at your disposal, you have the following four ways to protect your intellectual property:
1. PATENTS. There are three types of patents in the U.S.: utility patents (90% of all patents); design patents, and plant patents. Having a patent for an invention or a design allows the owner to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention or design for a certain period of time. To obtain a patent, a person must file an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Utility patent may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof. Approximately 90% of the patent documents issued by the USPTO in recent years have been utility patents, also referred to as “patents for invention.” Utility patents last up to 20 years from the date of patent application.
Design patent may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture. In general, a design patent is obtained for the aesthetically appealing features of a product. It gives the owner the right to prevent others from making, using, or selling a product that so resembles the patented product that an “ordinary observer” might purchase the infringing article, thinking it was the patented product. An example of a famous design patent is Coca-Cola’s unique bottle shape. Also, many clothing companies often patent a unique design to prevent other companies from imitating it. Design patents last for up to 14 years from the date of the grant.
In many circumstances, one may obtain a design patent in addition to a utility patent for the same invention. Also, to the extent that the subject qualifies as a work of art, there may be an opportunity to obtain a copyright for the same, and if the design is embodied in a physical article, and also functions as a trademark, a trademark registration may be obtained.
Plant patent may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.
The patent application process is complicated and can cost thousands of dollars as most applications require help from a qualified patent attorney or agent. To maintain the force of the patent, you must pay fees due at 3.5, 7.5 and 11.5 years after the patent grant. The total amount of maintenance fees for a small entity (such as an independent inventor) is $4,430, while bigger entities must pay $8,860.
2. COPYRIGHT. Copyright protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. You do not have to register your work to have copyright protection. However, only registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in a copyright infringement suit. Thus, you should register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office, which can be done online for just $35 – $55 fee.
The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.
3. TRADEMARKS. A trademark is a word, phrase, or design that distinguishes the source of the goods of one business from its competitors. A right in a trademark is acquired by use, but registration with U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) makes it easier to enforce such right.
To apply, you must have a clear representation of the mark, as well as an identification of the class of goods or services to which the mark will apply. You can submit an online application, and filing fees vary according to the type and the number of classes of goods or services, among other factors. Filing an application for trademark is complicated, so, as with patents, most people hire attorneys who specialize in trademarks to handle the process.
4. TRADE SECRETS. Trade secrets in Texas are protected by the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (TUTSA). A Texas business or a person may claim as a trade secret any information that (1) has economic value because it is not generally known and (2) is subject to efforts to maintain its secrecy that are reasonable under circumstances. Trade secrets may include, but are not limited to the following: formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, process, financial data or list of actual or potential customers or suppliers.
Thus, even those ideas and business processes that do not qualify for patents, copyright or trademark protection, can be protected by the owner as trade secrets, as long as they have economic value and the owner’s efforts to keep the ideas secret are reasonable under circumstances.
Under TUTSA, Texas business owners may also seek a temporary injunction to prevent misappropriation or threatened misappropriation of their trade secrets. A temporary injunction is a court order, which, if granted, prevents a person or a company from using the information claimed to be a trade secret. Sometime, injunctive relief is the only way to protect valuable information from being stolen or misused by a competitor, but the owner must act fast after discovering misappropriation or a court might decide that the misappropriated information is not as valuable as the owner claims.
Leiza Dolghih is the founder of Dolghih Law Group PLLC. She is board certified in labor and employment law and has 16+ years of experience in commercial and employment litigation, including trade secrets and non-compete disputes. You can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (214) 531-2403.