Trademarks, Copyrights, and…Iron Man? Learn Why Startups Need to Protect Their Intellectual Property

September 24, 2021

You have insurance to protect your physical assets. What about the more intangible parts of your organization? What steps have you taken to protect what's legally yours?

For small business owners, this crucial consideration can sometimes go overlooked. As you ramp up your startup, you're busy worrying about generating revenue, hiring employees, and keeping your books. The legal details of concerns like copyrights and trademarks often fall through the cracks.

However, not paying enough attention to these vital aspects of your business can prove a costly mistake. These details can become central to your brand and to your overall ability to grow.

Here's why it's important to not skip this step to setting up your business.

What aspects of your business can you legally protect?

If you have laptops for your employees or equipment used on the factory floor, there are obvious procedures you can put in place to secure insurance and make sure your investment is protected.

However, you possess other assets that are less obvious. You might not even think of them as assets. Still, these less-tangible contributions to your business require as much attention as the more material parts of your operation.

And don’t worry if you feel that you don't have a handle on these details as you launch your small business. You're not alone. For instance, one survey found that 98% of trademarks are never registered.

To help build a moat around your business and create a brand that can stand the test of time, you need to take the necessary steps to protect your legal rights. That requires understanding intellectual property, or IP, and taking the measures needed to secure it.

The value of intellectual property

In its simplest form, intellectual property consists of the intangible creations that you have the right to. Think about how much Disney has made off of the Marvel comic book characters ($18 billion in global box office as of 2019).

Intellectual property consists of the intangible creations that you have the right to.

That's a good example of the power of IP. Disney owns the idea of Iron Man. Therefore, it can cash in on this property through movies and other revenue-generating methods.

But this easily might not have happened. Iron Man was first created in 1963. Imagine if Marvel hadn't protected that IP – decades later, a new generation of executives would have regretted it, to the tune of billions of dollars.

Not securing legal rights to a character like Iron Man might seem like an obvious business blunder. But that’s only true in retrospect. One online resource counts more than 4,500 comic book characters that have slipped into the public domain.

As a small business owner, you never know which of your IPs will represent valuable assets down the line. That's why it's important to know how to protect your intellectual property now.

Understanding intellectual property

What does intellectual property entail? Here are three major categories to keep in mind:

Trademarks

Trademarks are key to any brand. They represent the images and words that set your company apart from the others. Think things like the Apple logo or Nike's iconic "Just do it" ad slogan.

If you don't trademark these key identifiers, other competitors can dilute your brand by creating similar slogans or logos. You'll lose the ability to differentiate yourself and waste any investment you've made in building a unique brand.

To protect your trademarks, turn to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This government body provides a process for registering your key brand assets.

Copyrights

In some ways, copyrights resemble trademarks. Both protect branding elements and various forms of your intellectual property. However, there are some distinctions to keep in mind.

Trademarks relate more to items like product names and design elements. Meanwhile, copyrights aim to protect intellectual and creative productions.

So, the name "iPhone" would represent a trademark situation. However, the marketing materials used to sell the smartphone (like a TV commercial) would fall under copyright.

Patents

Patents let you get the most out of any innovations you devise. By receiving these protections, you'll have exclusive use of technologies or processes that you create. Your competitors can't just mimic the unique aspects of your products with copycat launches.

There are some decisions you need to make as you consider whether to pursue a patent.

First, not all new ideas are patentable. You'll have to consider the topic with experts before wasting your time with the patent process.

Second, the process itself can be slow and will require you to disclose the details behind your patentable idea. As a result, it isn't optimal for every situation. Again, you should discuss your options before moving forward.

Additional ways to protect your business

Trademarks, copyrights, and patents are each protected through a governmental procedure. There are other ways to make sure your company gets full value out of its assets.

Here is a sample of the kinds of safeguards you can put in place to protect your startup:

Formal corporate structure: In the beginning, your business might start at a kitchen table with just handshake agreements with your initial investors of family and friends. However, don't expect these informal relationships to hold up over time. Take steps to create a formal corporate structure to avoid confusion and legal hassles in the future. Doing this is also how you separate your personal assets and liabilities from your business’s.

Employee materials: Contracts, handbooks, NDAs and other documentation make sure that both you and your workers understand all the details involved in employment. They will also protect you if a dispute arises.

Google Alerts: Know what's being said about your business. Your reputation is foundational to your brand. Track your online footprint and respond as needed to preserve your standing in the industry.

Protecting your less obvious assets

You pour your life into creating your business. This involves direct investments -- like buying equipment. However, building a small business also represents a creative endeavor.

By securing intellectual property like trademarks, copyrights, and patents, you ensure that some of your most valuable assets remain legally yours.

Make sure you take the steps necessary to safeguard your innovation and creative output. By securing intellectual property like trademarks, copyrights, and patents, you ensure that some of your most valuable assets remain legally yours.

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