Intellectual property laws and best practices can be intimidating — especially for tech businesses, which have to contend with standard best practices and issues unique to the industry. Fortunately, while IP can be complex in some areas, it’s often straightforward enough for large companies.
These key considerations and strategies are essential for enterprise-level tech corporations that need to protect their IP while avoiding infringing on the property of others.
Know what kind of IP protection is available
Patents, trademarks and copyrights provide different types and levels of IP protection.
A patent allows an inventor to exclude others from making, using or selling their invention for a fixed number of years. The patent owner has the right to commercialize it, allowing them to sell or license it to another person or entity.
A trademark is a recognizable sign or design that allows customers to identify a particular good, service or brand. Examples include McDonald’s golden arches and the Google logo. Unlike patents, the protection for a trademark must be actively maintained — typically by using it in commerce and filing regularly to demonstrate you are still using the mark.
Copyright provides the creator of some intellectual property the exclusive right to copy their work. Unlike patents and trademarks, copyrights automatically offer protection the moment something is created and tangible. The duration varies from country to country. In the United States, they last for the life of the author plus 70 years.
A trade secret is an IP right on confidential information. Trade secrets can be licensed and sold. As long as they’re not readily known or accessible by competitors, they’re protected by state and federal laws, including the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA).
Both patents and trademarks require time and money to obtain. Copyrights are granted automatically, but many businesses adopt a defensive publishing strategy to ensure ideas and abstract concepts are protected by law.
Protecting your core assets is essential, but so is minimizing costs. Finding the right balance between protection and expense will help you secure your IP without overspending.
Build a long-term IP strategy
According to research from Gowling WLG, just 22% of businesses have a one-to-two-year IP strategy. Having a mid-to-long-term IP strategy in place can secure a significant competitive advantage.
Building a strategy that includes guidelines for protecting, developing and auditing your business’s intellectual property can ensure your IP is properly protected. The typical plan has three core aims — protection, optimizing processes and helping the company monetize its IP.
The protection of IP is typically accomplished with defensive publishing and the use of patents, trade secret designations and trademarks. Any kind of intellectual property or IP agreement — including copyright, domain names and licensing agreements — requires careful management, which is why businesses typically partner with legal specialists or hire lawyers who have expertise in intellectual property law.
The optimization process involves creating formal procedures for patent searches and IP documentation. A business often makes guidelines for determining what protection a particular property may need, helping management streamline future decisions.
Monetization of intellectual property is its own issue and can be highly complex. In general, businesses will create a process for identifying infringement upon your IP and potential licensing partners, as well as other scenarios where owning an IP can provide value to the company. This goes beyond the defense of ideas, designs or concepts developed in-house.
Avoid possible IP disputes
It can sometimes be difficult to establish who is the owner of work completed by an employee — the company or the worker themselves. Business owners may also assume that any IP they create automatically belongs to the company. However, if the owner isn’t employed by the enterprise or was hired to establish that IP, they may retain ownership.
In many cases, IP created using the worker’s resources — their technology and home working space — can belong to the employee that made them. Discussing IP ownership with employees and creating contracts that establish clear possession will help avoid IP disputes.
Key IP considerations for tech businesses
IP can be especially hard for tech businesses to manage. Remote and freelance work can create IP disputes that other companies may not have to worry about.
Familiarity with IP protections, a strategy and an in-house legal team will help a business stay on top of its intellectual property. Even basic knowledge can help managers navigate disputes and build a more effective business plan.