Protect Your Ideas

by Doug Powell

As designers continue to become more sophisticated entrepreneurs by launching our own products and services directly into the marketplace, we also must become more sophisticated in how we protect our intellectual property.

Intellectual property (IP) refers to the distinct idea or design for which a set of exclusive rights are recognized—as well as to the corresponding fields of law. Under intellectual property law, owners are granted certain exclusive rights to a variety of intangible assets, such as musical, literary, and artistic works; discoveries and inventions; and words, phrases, symbols, and designs. If designer/entrepreneurs do not take certain steps to protect their IP, there is a risk of a competitor (knowingly or not) using the idea and threatening future business opportunities.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) outlines four basic ways to protect different types of intellectual property:

Patents are divided into three basic types: Utility (useful devices and processes), Design (appearance of a useful device), and Plant Patents (man-made plant varieties)

Trademarks protect words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that distinguish goods and services. Trademarks, unlike patents, can be renewed forever as long as they are being used in business. The roar of the MGM lion, the pink of the Owens-Corning insulation, and the shape of a Coca-Cola bottle are familiar trademarks.

Copyrights protect works of authorship, such as writings, music, and works of art that have been tangibly expressed. The Library of Congress registers copyrights which last the life of the author plus 50 years. Gone With The Wind (the book and the film), Beatles recordings, and video games are all works that are copyrighted.

Trade Secrets are information that companies keep secret to give them an advantage over their competitors. The formula for Coca-Cola is the most famous trade secret.

The USPTO offers an easy and inexpensive step that can provide limited protection of an idea for a defined period of time. A Provisional Application for Patent is a legal document that establishes your idea with the USPTO at a specified date, but it does not mature into an issued patent unless the applicant files a regular patent application within one year. A provisional application basically establishes that you had an idea at a point in time, which means that you can prove ownership of the idea in the event that someone else uses it. Provisional Patent Applications can be filed online and the fee is just $110. If you do not proceed with the full patent application after one year, the application will automatically expire. Think of the Provisional Application as a way to “buy some time” while you determine if your idea is viable and develop a plan for building on it.

The Provisional Application is a great tool for IP beginners, but before you proceed beyond this step it’s a good idea to consult with an attorney to determine your best course of action because the process of defending any protection you establish can be expensive and complicated. Most attorneys will offer an initial consultation for free or at a reasonable flat fee, and it’s a good idea to discuss legal fees at this first meeting because they can vary wildly.


lightbulb next to cut out/copied shape

If designers/entrepreneurs don’t take certain steps to protect their IP, there is a risk of a competitor (knowingly or not) using the idea and threatening future business opportunities.

Image by Jason Bacher


Quick Tips
Use nondisclosure agreements. It’s common to ask people to sign an NDA before discussing the details of your idea. Typical NDAs obligate signatories to refrain from disclosing confidential information without your consent. Standard NDA templates can be found online.

Be patient. Obtaining a copyright, trademark or patent takes time—sometimes months or years depending on the specifics—in the meantime, you can continue to build and grow your idea under the radar.

Move quickly to protect your IP. If you suspect a violation of an idea you have protected, check with an attorney right away. Often times delaying action can make it more challenging to defend your rights.


Dig Deeper!
The USPTO website is loaded with information about the IP process, including:
Online applications
• A listing of registered Patent Attorneys organized by state
• Short videos on various IP topics


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