What Intellectual Property Means for Small BusinessesHow is intellectual property defined? Intellectual property (IP) pertains to things you create with your mind, not the ideas themselves, but the expression of the ideas in some form. An idea all by itself in your head, is not IP.

If you created something original, you may have a certain degree of protection against someone else using, claiming, modifying, or selling it. There are four common types of IP: copyrights, patents, trademarks (including design rights), and trade secrets. Every once in a while we like to recap these four intellectual property types and distinguish them for our readers. Enjoy!

Copyright protection

This means that if you discover someone claiming to have written something you wrote, you can sue them in civil court. You must be able to prove you are the originator of the work before you can successfully sue, and that isn't always easy.

Trademark protection

This occurs when you register a symbol or symbolic slogan (your trademark) that you use to define your brand. Once registered, you can use the registered ® logo to notify the public that you own the symbol or name. In the United States you can mark a trademark with a TM symbol, which means you claim an unregistered trademark. If another company uses your trademark, you can sue for trademark infringement or take legal cease and desist action against them. If the trademark is not registered, the law suit will be more difficult.

Design and trade dress rights 

They are like copyright protections that protect the shape, color, or feel of a product. These rights are protected by an international treaty that makes it possible for the owner of a design to sue imitators. There have been some famous law suits of this kind, especially in the software industry where one software designer sued another about the look and feel of their product.

Patent Protection 

This is an act of the federal government and has to do with interstate commerce. Trade secret legislation is similar in coverage but was enacted at state levels. These forms of protection allow the owner of a patent to sue any party found to be making profits from claims to an invention that you have duly registered with the US patent office. Trade secrets are harder to protect. The claimant to a trade secre has to prove that he or she has made every effort to protect the secret.

Small businesses must also be aware of the IP rights claimed by other companies and competitors. In other words, not only do you have to make sure you own and protect your IP but that you do not infringe on others’ IP. These cautions are especially true of the fast moving IT industry.


Need help identifying what kind of intellectual property you may need to protect? Start with our Risk Quiz.

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