A close-up on a pair of hands using an electronic tablet. The tablet screen shows a webpage with the heading "PATENT APPLICATION." The rest of the page is filled with fields to be filled-in with applicant information. The right hand's pointer finger is poised to click on the "next step" button in the bottom-right corner of the screen.
Patents are used to protect intellectual property connected to new inventions or processes. — Getty Images/grinvalds

In our Startup2021 series, we're helping aspiring entrepreneurs navigate the business climate of the COVID-19 era. Each week, we'll share an in-depth look at one step you can take toward launching your business in 2021.

Protecting your intellectual property (IP) is vital to staying competitive in the marketplace and ensuring your hard work isn’t stolen. There are many threats to your IP, from industrial espionage to competitors to employees spying for their own gain. Here are four ways to protect your IP and tips for keeping it safe.

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property refers to original creations or inventions like literary works, designs, symbols, names, logos and more. Creators usually protect their intellectual property through legal means to receive proper credit and rights to their work. This legal protection also means there’s recourse for you if someone steals or misuses your IP.

[Read more: Can an Employee Own Intellectual Property?]

Legal ways to protect your intellectual property

There are a few ways to legally protect intellectual property:

  • Copyrights: Copyrights offer protection to written and artistic works, like literary creations, paintings and drawings, sculptures, music and video recordings and emails. Copyright protection prevents others from copying or duplicating your work without your permission. A piece of work is copyrighted as soon as the copyright is created, and protection lasts for the lifetime of the creator, plus 70 years. While it’s not required, you can register your copyright with the United States Copyright Office for better protection.
  • Trademarks: Trademarks protect a word, phrase, picture or logo that represents a company or source of goods. You don’t have to register your trademark, but doing so will help prove you were the first to use it and provide you a better case in court. You can register your trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for nationwide protection or with your state (if available) for statewide protection.
  • Patents: Patents offer protection for inventions such as computer program codes, artistic ornamentation of functional items and new plant varieties, as well as for new processes or modifications of existing patents. You can apply for a patent with the USPTO.
  • Trade secrets: Though trade secrets are known to be the least secure way to protect your intellectual property, they are still an option for creators. To keep a trade secret, you simply must keep the details of your creation to yourself (or to a small group of trusted individuals) to maintain control over its economic value.

[Read more: Intellectual Property: Differences Between Patent, Copyright and Trademark Laws]

It’s important for each part of the organization, from IT to HR, to report any suspicious activity so they can catch a breach before its consequences are irreparable.

Tips to keep your IP safe

While legal protection is the best way to keep your intellectual property safe, there are some things you can do be proactive about IP protection:

Know the IP you have (and where it is). To protect your intellectual property, you must first define it as such. Understand what qualifies as IP and where it is stored and processed so you can take the proper steps to keeping it safe.

Prioritize protecting your IP. Run a risk- and cost-benefit analysis to determine your most valuable information that needs the most protection.

Inform your company about the valuable IP you have to ensure everyone understands the significance. Once you determine your most valuable IP, communicate its confidentiality to other members of your organization so everyone knows it’s protected.

Look into physical and digital security measures. Lock rooms where intellectual property is stored, use passwords for digital assets and limit employee access to ensure your physical and digital IP is safe.

Educate employees on protecting IP (to avoid accidents or negligence). Often, problems arise when employees or other members of a company are negligent. A simple slip-up can put your IP at risk or allow it to leave an organization via a breach. Training employees to keep your IP safe and making them aware of the precautions they should take will help everyone involved understand the importance of IP.

Have a big-picture view. Oftentimes, different departments within a company will notice isolated incidents of breaches — likely labeled “mistakes” by the employee doing the breaching — but do not communicate them with each other. It’s important for each part of the organization, from IT to HR, to report any suspicious activity so they can catch a breach before its consequences are irreparable.

Think globally. Industrial espionage is common in various countries. You can evaluate threats by referring to the Corruption Perceptions Index to understand the threats associated with doing business in other countries.

Think like a competitor. Put yourself in your competitors’ shoes to understand how they might spy on your company to access your intellectual property. Then, take the proper precautions against such actions to ensure protection.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published June 28, 2021