Ensuring your intellectual property is safeguarded against theft is one of the first steps every entrepreneur should take. From processes to ideas to inventions, intellectual property is often more valuable than physical assets and its theft costs U.S. companies roughly $300 billion annually.
Types of intellectual property
There are four legally defined categories of intellectual property: patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. Each category offers entrepreneurs special protections and violators on state and federal levels are subject to prosecution.
-- Copyrights protect your ideas and how you express them. Books, songs and movies are common examples covered by copyright protection.
-- Trade secrets cover the information giving you a commercial advantage the general public doesn't possess. A good example is Coca-Cola: trade secrets protect everything from Coca-Cola's formulas to customer lists to manufacturing processes.
-- Trademarks protect the visual aspects of your business that distinguish you from competitors, including logos, names and general visual attributes.
-- Patents cover inventions that are useful to the public and prevent anyone else from making, using or selling these devices or processes. Business method patents protect a method of doing business, like Amazon.com's "one-click" ordering. Receiving a patent can take several years, so it's important to apply as soon as possible.
Ensuring your legal bases are covered through copyrights, patents and trademarks is a solid start to protecting your intellectual property. But catching and prosecuting offenders is difficult and expensive, and often times by then the damage has been done -- your critical information is now in the public domain. Consider these steps to further protect your company's ideas, processes and inside secrets for success:
-- Prioritize your intellectual property. What company assets would sting the most if stolen and which are most at risk?
-- Tag it. If it's yours, put your name on it. Otherwise you'll have a difficult time proving the information was protected.
-- Lock it. Lock up servers and storage, and control the keys.
-- Educate employees. Humans are often the weakest link in the intellectual property protection chain. Make sure your team is aware of what's at stake and how to protect it.
-- Think like a competitor. If you were a competitor and wanted to steal secrets from your company, how would you do it? Use your own insights as an entrepreneur to further identify what intellectual property needs protection as you refine your plan for doing so.