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Intellectual property protection for small businesses

Common legal expenses to start a small business can include drafting and filing organizational documents, attracting sufficient start-up capital, and obtaining business licenses, for example.

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In addition, securing intellectual property rights may play a role in a good business plan, depending upon the type of business.  Generally, intellectual property rights include: patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets.Patents can protect inventions for small businesses developed around a new product, process, machine, or even a computer-implemented business model.  Design patents can protect new ornamental non-functional designs for new products.

With a trademark, a new business can, in some cases, develop an almost immediate identity in the marketplace for its product or service.  There are different ways of using trademark rights to identify the products or services of new businesses — to develop brand recognition with customers, which can build the good will, and therefore, the asset value of the business.

Copyright rights can be available to those businesses on the creative side– works of authorship such as books, songs, writings, artwork, web designs, and in some cases, computer source codes.

Trade secret protection may be available in areas where not all intellectual property rights are registered, patented, or disclosed to the general public.  These can include proprietary formulas, customer lists, and internal business information.  These can be protected by confidentiality protection systems set up for the particular business.

Each of these types of intellectual property can add important asset value to your business.  For some start-up businesses, your intellectual property can be your biggest asset.  If you are looking for venture capital, a potential investor will initially want to know what has been done to protect your intellectual property.  Therefore, it may be important for a small business entrepreneur to seek intellectual property counsel at an early date so that valuable rights are not lost.  Also, at issue may be avoiding infringement or conflicts with prior established intellectual property rights of others.  For instance, an initial patent search or trademark search may indicate that an idea or trademark name is protectable — or alternatively, that there may be a problem you will need to avoid.

Protecting a firm’s intellectual property rights also can require a lawyer’s drafting a non-disclosure agreement, employee and secrecy agreement, intellectual property provisions in agreements with business partners or outside consultants, and in some cases, intellectual property licensing agreements — especially early-on before unwanted legal entanglements may arise.

Even a short meeting with intellectual property counsel up-front can help set the business owner in the right direction, by answering a few questions and explaining some simple rules that apply to various forms of intellectual property rights that may be available.  This can serve to protect valuable intellectual property assets and save money in the long run.