person holding copyright symbol
An increasingly global market presents new considerations for small businesses. — Getty Images/Bulat Silvia

Globalization may seem like a problem for big businesses, but Main Street merchants also need to consider the impact of an increasingly international market. By some estimates, as much as 97% of all U.S. exports are from small businesses. You may be serving global customers sooner than you thought; and when you start selling overseas, it’s important to protect your intellectual property (IP) to maintain your competitive advantage. Here’s what you need to know to protect your IP internationally.

[Read more: Unlocking Export Potential: How to Advertise and Market Internationally]

Steps to protect your intellectual property overseas

The protections for your IP vary depending on whether you’re working with a patent, trademark or copyright. We’ll dive deeper into the implications of each type of IP in the following sections. However, there are some basic, inexpensive steps that small businesses can take to protect their IP no matter what type of business advantage you’re seeking to insure.

First, make sure you conduct your due diligence before working with any foreign partners. Visit the U.S. Commercial Service webpage to research a potential buyer or distributor and learn if they have any IP violations. Make sure that you work with legal counsel to develop ironclad language that protects your IP rights in any licensing and subcontracting agreements.

Next, make sure you record any U.S.-registered trademarks and copyrights with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office. Many countries also have departments for securing and registering patents, trademarks and copyrights, which can give you some defense against an IP rights violation in a worst-case scenario. Find information on how to apply for individual patents or trademarks in a foreign country with the intellectual property office in that country; a list of intellectual property offices worldwide is maintained by the World Intellectual Property Organization.

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

Make sure that you work with legal counsel to develop ironclad language that protects your IP rights in any licensing and subcontracting agreements.

Protecting your copyright overseas

A copyright protects original works such as literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. There is no international copyright law. However, it is possible to enforce your U.S. copyright overseas, provided that the country in which you are operating has signed on to any of the various international IP protection treaties. There are a number of treaties, including the Berne Convention, that do not require you to formally register a copyrighted work. Check with a legal expert in a country in which you plan to use copyrighted material to learn the specific rules and regulations around a copyright.

Protecting your patent overseas

A patent is provided to inventors to allow them to control the manufacture, use and sale of their creations. Patents do not enjoy the same automatic protection as copyrights. U.S.-registered patents are only valid within the United States. You must protect your IP by filing for a patent in a specific country. In order to file for a patent overseas, you must already have a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office license.

Protecting your trademark overseas

Lastly, a trademark covers the protection of a word, phrase or logo that identifies a product or service used to distinguish itself from competitors. Trademarks face similar restrictions to patents; the United States has not signed any treaties to extend the trademark protection outside its borders. “While U.S. law confers the benefits of trademark protection through prior foreign trademark registration, the situation will vary depending on the national laws in your target country,” writes one legal expert.

Some countries will make it easy to get a trademark. The European Union, for instance, allows small business owners to register a “community trademark” that is effectively protected by the European international copyright law. It offers protection for your IP across all EU member states. Check for more information on international trademark protection with the USPTO.

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.

Want to read more? Be sure to follow us on LinkedIn!

Applications are open for the CO—100! Now is your chance to join an exclusive group of outstanding small businesses. Share your story with us — apply today.

CO—is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.

Brought to you by
Simplify your startup’s finances with Mercury
Navigating the complex finances of a growing startup can be daunting. Mercury’s VP of Finance shares the seven areas to focus on, from day-to-day operations to measuring performance, and more.
Read the article