Whether you have a business or plan on starting one, begin thinking now about how to safeguard your intellectual property. The way Colonel Sanders fried his chicken and the process Glen Bell used for bending tortillas into a taco shape when he started Taco Bell – these are examples of intellectual property that were at the core of each company’s success and differentiation.
Two forms of protection are patents and trade secrets. Patents must be registered with the U.S. Patent Office and differ in classification, such as design patents and utility patents. Trade secrets can be anything from technology to recipes to processes to anything important to differentiating your business that you don’t want others to know about. The Coca Cola recipe is a trade secret.
Trade secrets differ from patents in a number of ways and, in some cases, trade secrets may be an even better protection tool than patents. Patents last for 20 years (design patents for 14 years). Patents publish while they are still pending, so your competition can have a look-see and possibly take the risk of knocking you off and making you come after them if enough has been revealed. It’s most likely when the other party has much more money than you (big corporation vs. small inventor). Remember the movie “Flash of Genius”?
Trade secrets are just that…secret. There is no time limit; they never expire. Industrial spying – competitors coming into or sending people into your store or business or otherwise attempting to gain information on trade secrets – can carry even more severe penalties than patent infringements might. These may include millions of dollars in fines and years in prison for guilty parties.
How do you help protect yourself? Get non-disclosure agreements signed by employees and anyone else who might have access to your trade secrets and instruct them not to discuss company business with anyone. When people ask questions regarding your business, be very careful what you say. Keep written records with dates, emails, documents, witness statements, or anything else that may be considered evidence of espionage or industrial spying.
No one should act overly interested in your business or how something proprietary to your business works and, if they do, they should be told it is private information. If they press further, your radar should be on red alert. Patents and/or trade secrets are valuable…and they are YOUR property! Be very vigorous about guarding, protecting, and defending them and be vigilant every day – make sure your employees are as well.
It would be wonderful if we could trust everyone and we lived in a world where laws weren’t needed to keep people from stealing others’ intellectual property, but we don’t. However, we can be prepared to prevent
theft and legally deal with those who cross the line.
Disclaimer: I am not an attorney and my post is not legal advice. It is meant to raise awareness of the need for protecting your business from intellectual property theft. Some information may not be accurate or differ from state to state. A qualified intellectual property attorney should be consulted for anything pertaining to trade secrets and patents. In addition, I have intentionally chosen not to address trademarks and copyrights in this post.