Five Ways to get Free Intellectual Property Protection
If you ever plan to sell your company, want to get investors, or plan to leave a
legacy, protecting you intellectual property is key to that success. But, it takes money to make money, right? Or, does it?
Here are five ways to get free intellectual property protection, provided by attorney J. P Webb. These techniques are used by major corporations around the world and are proven to provide at least
baseline protection. They are processes that should be a part of your regular way of
doing business because they provide an infinite return on investment.
Before you start, you need to know that there are five fundamental forms of
intellectual property. They are Content, Brand, Technology, Secrets, and Relationships.
Each of these forms are created in virtually any business, can be protected under the
law, and can even be transferred (read that as “sold”). So, when you think about the
value of your business, think in terms of your:
1) Content (website, pamphlets, instruction manuals, art, books, music,
2) Brand (trademark, company name, product name, slogan, etc.)
3) Technology (know-how, processes, inventions, etc.)
4) Secrets (lists, financial information, data that has value if kept secret, etc.)
5) Relationships (deals, partners, alliances, suppliers, vendors, lead sources,etc.)
Intellectual Property Lawyer
To really nail down protection in any of these areas, you need an IP lawyer –
plain and simple. But, you don’t always need to nail down protection all the way;
sometimes you just need a “covering,” especially in the beginning. So, here are the five
things that everybody should be doing that cost exactly nothing and that provide basic
protection in each of the five areas of value in your business. We’ve also included
some warnings of common dangers to watch out for.
Free Copyright Protection
The lowest level of copyright protection is automatic and completely free as soon
as you have a tangible form of your creative work. This can be a written book, a web
page, an audio recording of you playing an instrument, or a video you make to post on
the web. To strengthen this free protection you should put a copyright notice on
anything that you create that you don’t want other people copying. The copyright notice
can have the following format:
©[space]First Year of Publication[space]Owner
© 2010 Webb IP Law Group
The © symbol can also be replaced with “Copy.” or with (c). The date can be a
date range or list if you have published multiple times. For example, some websites are
updated over a period of years. In that case the date would cover a range of the years
where there were updates. Examples:
© 2006 – 2012 Webb IP Law Group
Copr. 2004, 2007 Webb IP Law Group
You can use the © mark even if you have not applied for federal registration of
your copyright. Make it a habit of putting this mark on all of your content. It shows that
you know you have rights and that they should be taken seriously.
Warning: If you pay someone to create Content for you, they often own it instead
of you. Make sure that your agreements are clear about ownership of Content. If
possible and appropriate, make sure that the written agreement states that you own it.
Free Trademark Protection
The lowest level of trademark protection is automatic and completely free as
soon as you use your brand in commerce. This can be a logo, or a tag line, or a special
design, or a name of a company or product. To strengthen this free protection you
should put a trademark notice on any brand you use and every place you use the
brand. The trademark notice is a “TM” next to the brand, usually to the bottom right or
top right of the brand.
Webb IP Law Group TM
Also, the more you use your mark in commerce, the more ownership and
protection you have. So, as long as you are clear to use your brand and are not
infringing someone else’s brand, then going all out on your marketing, advertising and
sales is a way to establish stronger and stronger rights.
Warning: Do not use the ® symbol unless you actually have a federal registration
or you risk getting in trouble. Also, until you actually use your brand in commerce or
have an application filed with the US government, anybody can steal it. So, if you have
an excellent name, keep it under wraps.
Free Technology Protection
The lowest level of technology protection is not automatic and involves two main
First, every inventor should have an “inventor’s notebook” where they keep a
special record of their inventions. The notebook should be permanently bound (NOT
loose-leaf) and should be where you write down all of your ideas. You should date all of
your writings and have each page witnessed by two witnesses. You can grab a lab
notebook you have lying around. If you are ok spending a little cash, you can buy an
inventors notebooks online for $15- $20, and it will generally include instructions for how
to properly fill out the notebook. Keeping a notebook like this can be used later as
evidence of your creation and can be proof against someone who might steal your idea
Second, every inventor should keep their inventions secret as much as possible
until they have decided how to keep the idea protected. You should have simple
confidentiality agreements with anybody you discuss the idea with who is not an
attorney or otherwise obligated to keep what you tell them secret. If you must put
details of your invention on a website, be sure to password protect the site and only give
the password to people that have agreed to keep it confidential. For some inventions,
keeping it secret indefinitely is the right choice. For others, your initial protection helps
you get ready for patents.
Warning: Do not use “Patent Pending”
Do not use “Patent Pending” on your product/service unless you actually have a patent pending with the US Patent Office that covers your product/service or you risk being sued.
Free Trade Secret Protection
The lowest level of trade secret protection is simple. Keep the secret. Actually
putting that into practice is where it gets a little complicated. Here are some ideas:
a) Mark secret documents as CONFIDENTIAL. This can be a watermark, in
a footer or header, or even just in the text.
b) End your email footer with a notice of confidentiality – here is an example:
o This email and any attachments contain information from Webb IP Law
Group, which may be confidential and/or privileged. The information is
intended to be for the use of the individual or entity named on this
email. If you are not the intended recipient, be aware that any
disclosure, copying, distribution or use of the contents of this email
is prohibited. If you receive this email in error, please notify us by
reply email immediately so that we can arrange for the retrieval of the
original documents at no cost to you.
a) Encrypt or password protect important computer data (customer lists,
financial data, credit card numbers, etc.)
b) Follow any legal secrecy/confidentiality requirements that apply to your
industry or to the kinds of secrets you are expected to keep (HIPAA, FTC
c) Establish policies of “need to know” for critical information – in other words
only people who “need to know” should be given access to that information
Warning: If you cannot prove (usually in writing) that you took appropriate efforts to keep something a secret, then courts will generally treat you like you didn’t. Be sure to document your efforts to keep things a secret.
Free Relationship Protection
The lowest level of relationship protection comes in two parts. If you skip either,
you are bound for trouble. First, relationships are all about expectations, so having
clear expectations is a must. Second, relationships always involve people and people
are great at remembering what is important to them and forgetting what is not. It is how
we keep our brains clean and de-cluttered. It is also how we lose focus on expectations
and crash our relationships.
So, if you want to protect your relationships, then take the time to make sure that
your expectations, in both directions, are clear. This means spending a little extra time
talking with people who are important to your business even when you are excited to
move on with doing business. It means repeating what you hear to make sure that you
heard it right. It also means dealing with the topics that you would rather avoid.
Then, once the expectations seem fairly clear, put them in writing. You don’t
have to be a lawyer to send an email summary of what each side is expecting.
Sometimes this is very information and can often help further clarify the expectations.
Sometimes it is sent as a Formal Memorandum of Understanding. Either way, getting it
in writing is a great way to preserve that understanding so that six months later you can
go back and remember what you were thinking and expecting.
Warning: If someone sends you a summary of an “understanding” and it is
incorrect and you don’t reply, that summary might someday be treated as if it was the
full truth on the subject. Don’t let an opportunity to clarify slip by, it might bite you later.
Summary and Final Warnings
Clearly, there are plenty of things you can do to protect your business without
writing a single check. Be aware of the intellectual property that you create as you go
about your business and set up whatever you need to manage its protection. Protect
your content, protect your brand, protect your technology, keep your secrets, and take
the time to protect your relationships. The last is probably the most important, since
nothing meaningful in this life is ever accomplished without involving other people.
Warning: When we say “lowest level of protection” we mean that it is the least
amount of protection that is better than nothing at all. Certainly, that level of protection
is not always appropriate and you need to be judicious about what you protect and how
you protect it. That said, if you don’t at least do the free protection, don’t be surprised if
other people treat your property like a doormat.