ARVID HUTH , co-owner of P.M. Bedroom Gallery, a home furnishings store in Milwaukee, likes to think his company’s custom-made furniture is one of a kind. But recently, while surfing the web, he noticed a headboard that looked awfully familiar.
Even though the headboard was made of metal rather than wood, the likeness was uncanny, says Huth. ” Everything in our showrooms is unique to us, ” he adds. ” It was a copy. ”
As Huth discovered, business owners who market their designs, product ideas and other enterprising notions on the web also risk having them stolen. While legal protections such as patents, copyrights and trademarks help guard against such activities, it’s up to the small-business owner to enforce them, says James Fornari, head of the intellectual property practice at Gersten Savage, a law firm in New York. ” Law enforcement bodies tend to focus on larger businesses, ” he adds.
While playing watchdog over your intellectual property can seem like a Herculean task, failing to take any measures to protect your business could be extremely damaging. Not only can imposter goods crimp sales, they can also strip away a company’s competitive advantage.
Here are six ways to protect your intellectual property:
Establish legal protections
Legal protections vary based on what it is you want to safeguard.
Patents protect inventions or a new method of doing something. This legal document prevents competitors from making, using or selling an invention for 20 years. It also gives you the right to sue for damages and bar future infringement should someone steal your product or idea. To file for a patent online, use the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s electronic filing system . (For more information on patents, read our story .)
Trademarks help prevent others from using your business name and logo. It also empowers you to sue infringers in federal court. To register trademarks, head to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s web site . (For more information on trademarks, click here .)
Copyrights protect ” authored ” content, such as books, music or art. Even though automatic copyright protection kicks in at the moment of publication, if you want to take someone to court, you will need to register for a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office , which costs $35 online.
Make it difficult to copy your materials
To protect their work, photographers might overlay a second, transparent image on top of a photo, post images that distort when opened elsewhere or embed a watermark into an image. Those who create audio or video content might also use watermarks. Creative Commons , a nonprofit dedicated to helping people protect and share their property, offers watermarks for free.
Also, consider using digital rights management software, or DRM software, that requires anyone trying to copy your digital media — whether it’s music downloads, podcasts or promotional videos — to license your product. DRM software is offered by LockLizard , DigitalContainers and Aladdin , among others.
To protect written work like a book excerpt that’s posted online, consider converting the text into a PDF file and disable the option that allows others to save or copy the text.
Make your product hard to recreate
Many copycats use reverse engineering to figure out how a product works and is constructed, says Fornari, the intellectual property attorney in New York. Encrypting your software code, for example, will make it unreadable to intruders. Or you could install a trigger that shuts down the software should anyone tamper with the coding in a way that indicates that they’re trying to copy it.
Use confidentiality agreements
While you may be able to secure your documents online, making sure your employees — who know the inner workings of the company and its products — don’t spill prized information is a much a harder feat. One way to ensure they stay mum is to have them sign a confidentiality or nondisclosure agreement, says David M. Given, an intellectual property attorney at San Francisco law firm Phillips, Erlewine & Given. These agreements, which are often included as part of an employee’s contract, require them from divulging sensitive information. If employees talk or attempt to use secret information for their own purposes, the employer can enjoin them from doing so and seek monetary damages.
Appoint a watchdog
Appoint an employee or an outside security firm to keep a close eye out for copycats. Smaller, independent trade associations may also help patrol your products and potentially go after violators for you, notes Given.
Send a letter
If you do find copycats send them a cease and desist letter or email (if the infringement occurs online) immediately. Be sure to include proof of your legal registration, the law that’s being violated and any evidence. (You can use a screen shot of a stolen design or invention, for example). Keep a record of evidence as well. That way, if the violator doesn’t stop, you can present it in court.
Write to Diana Ransom at email@example.com
Other recent smSmallBiz stories: