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Steps to protect your intellectual property

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

The area known as intellectual property, or IP, is becoming increasingly important for small business. IP refers to all of the intangible assets that a business develops that are products of the mind, rather than products of machinery. Just as you can own tangible property, you can also own intellectual property if you take proper steps to establish and protect that ownership.

But while patents and other intellectual property are vital to smaller businesses, those businesses often lack resources for managing IP issues. Poorly written patent applications submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) have created a backlog of historic proportions. And IP experts at IBM, for example, say the government has been approving applications for things that are overly broad, obvious and old-hat in a rush to clear the logjam. Here are some things small businesses can do to establish, protect and cash in on IP assets:

DEVISE AN IP STRATEGY. Create a strategy that leverages the entire spectrum of techniques, including patenting, designating ideas as trade secrets, and trademark and copyright law.

EXECUTE PROPER AGREEMENTS WITH FREELANCERS. If your business uses independent contractors to help develop IP assets, it is vital that all written contractor agreements specifically establish your full ownership of any developed IP. Beware of using independent contractors who are actually employees at large technology companies (a common practice). They might have conflicting employment agreements that say any IP they develop belongs to their big company employer.

GET UP TO SPEED ON IP ISSUES. A good place for a primer is the FAQ section at the USPTO (www.uspto.gov). Self-help legal publisher Nolo (www.nolo.com) has several books on the process.

SHOP YOUR IP VIA LICENSING AGREEMENTS. Several websites offer new and affordable ways for small businesses and inventors to license or sell IP. Check out IPmarket.com, NewIdeaTrade.com and IPauctions.com where you can list your IP assets for sale.

PROTECT YOUR WEBSITE IP, TOO. In an effort to attract and service customers, small businesses sometimes post intellectual property on websites. Be aware that whatever you place online can be easily pilfered by almost anyone. At a minimum, include a “terms of use” section on your site that spells out your intellectual property ownership.

LOOK BEYOND BORDERS. The Internet has made intellectual property rights a global pursuit. Small businesses are especially vulnerable to overseas theft of IP assets. The World Intellectual Property Association (www.wipo.int) has an excellent guide to international IP rights for small business.

GET GOOD IP LEGAL ADVICE. There’s no substitute for legal advice. The USPTO (www.uspto.gov) keeps a list of active IP attorneys. Or you can quickly search for IP attorneys in your area at Findlaw.com.

— Daniel Kehrer, editor,www.work.com
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