Small Business Intellectual Property

©2000 All Rights Reserved

Although many of you know I do not practice in the area of patents, trademarks, and copyright, I do want to give you a brief introduction to these areas. They come up often for small business owners, so an overview is very helpful.

1. Patents are for inventions, ideas, concepts, designs, or even plants. There is a quite involved process for applying for and receiving a patent, as your idea, process or invention must truly be unique. There are two sides to the protection coin; on one side, you have seventeen years of exclusivity once you have your patent; on the other side, you have just very carefully documented for public knowledge everything there is to know about your idea - giving away your secrets. This process very much needs the participation of a good patent attorney, to do the research, and develop the paperwork for the process.

2. Trademarks and service marks are terms, expressions, or designs that identify your business or products. They, like the patent, must be distinct from others, so they can be identifiable as yours, and not confused with others. Trade names are a form of trademark; they may be names your corporation or business is known by, along with a logo or design, or colors. Trade dress is the "image" of your business or product; such as your packaging on your product, or the interior design of a franchise, used wherever that business is located. Simple name checks and registration can be researched on the web at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office site; anything more complicated is usually work for an attorney.

3. Copyrights are used to protect original works of writers, authors, musicians, software programmers and other producers of intangible works. This is not a protection of ideas; this is a protection of the exact expressions used by the author, who is the "holder" of the copyright. No one else can copy your book or seminar materials; however they can use your ideas, or create a work similar to, but not the same, as your work. Generally speaking, registration of the work is necessary, unless you have had someone infringe on your work, and are pursuing litigation. You can, however, register before any possible problems, and potentially receive special damages awards and attorneys fees. For most cases, simply mark your work with the c, inside a circle, with the year of first publication and the author, and you may add "all rights reserved", or other designations such as "reproduce only with permission", or "use only for nonprofit purposes".

Please see an experienced intellectual property attorney (call our office for referrals) if you have specific questions regarding these issues.

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Sarah Calvert is a Virginia attorney, who works exclusively with small businesses and entrepreneurs. The goal of her firm is to be a proactive partner in making businesses work effectively, economically, and with the least amount of legal hassle.


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