You have had your great business idea. That idea that you think will propel you into early retirement and have you living the life you have always dreamed. The idea that is so perfect that you know it cannot fail. You may find yourself wondering how to protect a business idea that you think will be your great success. How can you protect your business idea to ensure that no one else ends up profiting off your innovation?
The answer of how to legally protect a business idea varies based on the type of idea. Protecting your business idea falls into three main categories, including patents, trademarks, and copyrights. The term “intellectual property,” which is commonly referred to in the business and legal fields as “IP,” is used to describe almost any type of original creation – a logo, a book or novel, a song, or a new process for a manufacturing activity.
A patent can protect your rights to your invention or innovative process. This could include all types of inventions, including chemical compounds, a hybrid plant, or the machine. By contrast, trademarks are used to protect the identifying and distinguishing words, names or symbols associated with your service, business, or products. Copyrights can be used to protect your intellectual property that has been committed to a tangible form, such as musical, artistic, or literary works. This might include photographs, lyrics, paintings, or books.
If you are in the “idea business,” you will want to understand these three main tools to have a deeper knowledge of how to legally protect a business idea. Each of these legal tools is designed to protect business ideas, and in protecting ideas that you have created with these tools, you can ensure that is you and not others who profit from your hard work.
The statute governing U.S. patents indicates that anyone who discovers or invents a useful and the new machine, process, manufacturing technique, or composition of matter, or a useful and new improvement of the same, can obtain a patent from the PTO. Unlike trademarks (and copyrights, discussed below), you must always file for a patent to have any protection. There is no such thing as an automatic patent that is created simply by using or creating a new and useful product or idea. The only safe business ideas are those that have been patented through the patent application process.
Unfortunately, it can be very costly and time-consuming to obtain a patent. It may take many months or years to obtain the patent, and it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to secure it.
However, there is something referred to as a “Provisional Patent” which is an initial protection that can be received more quickly and via a much easier process. This provisional patent essentially establishes your date of filing (which can matter if a competitor is trying to file for a similar patent) and gives you twelve months of “patent pending” status. Once you have a provisional patent in place, you can feel freer to discuss your invention, test it, and seek funding for further development. This can protect and preserve your right to patent the invention while determining whether it is worth committing the time and money to the patent process. In order to complete your application and receive the patent, you must complete your non-provisional application during the twelve-month period of the provisional patent. You will not be eligible for any extensions. Even if it takes years to get the patent granted, it will be effective as of the date you file, so filing sooner is better for protecting ideas.
Similar to trademark protections, the protections of copyright law attach as soon as your original work, whether it is a photograph, painting, or screenplay, is set into a tangible form. The tangible form necessary for the protection can be in a variety of mediums, including sound recordings, video, or print. As soon as you have fixed your original idea into a tangible form, you are the only person who has the right to copy or reproduce your work.
Like a trademark, you do not have to go through a formal registration process to gain the protections of copyright law in the U.S. However, similar to trademark registration, significant benefits can be gained through the official registration of your copyrighted works with the U.S. Copyright Office. By registering your copyrighted work, you create a public record of your rights and put the public on notice of your ownership rights. This record can help you should you ever need to seek legal redress for copyright infringement.
The process for registering your original works varies by the type of material you have produced, but you must always send a copy of work product and the necessary fee as part of the process. The duration of copyright protections also varies depending on when you have created and registered your work, but typically it extends to your lifetime plus seventy years.
While your ideas may be covered by only one of these tools, in reality, it may require a combination of the various legal tools to adequately protect business ideas for your entire range of business needs. That is why it is wise to work with an experienced intellectual property attorney to ensure your business ideas are safe and legally protected. Additionally, should someone begin to infringe on the rights you have established in your intellectual property, you must take action to protect your rights or you risk losing your rights. The government will not pursue or protect your rights on your behalf. As a result, it is important you work with your attorney to not only monitor your intellectual property but to act quickly if your rights are infringed. Your ideas may be your ticket to a better life, but only if you protect them to ensure that someone else doesn’t cash in on your great business ideas.