Three people sit around a table and examine a slim stack of papers. The man on the left, seen out of focus and in profile and wearing a light blue shirt, points at something on the paper. The woman in the middle, facing the viewer and wearing a yellow shirt, points at a different part of the page. The man on the right, also seen in profile and wearing a blue shirt, is lifting the page with one hand.
Once you've determined which types of IP you need to protect, your next step should be seeking legal counsel to navigate the various registration processes. — Getty Images/Morsa Images

Intellectual property (IP) is an invention or creation of the mind, like artwork, symbols, designs, and more. In business, IP might look like company or product names, slogans, logos, and even unique brand colors. As a business owner, it’s essential to protect any IP you may have so you can maintain your unique brand identity. Here’s what new startups should understand about IP and how to protect it.

Common types of IP

Here are some of the most common types of IP in business:

  • Trademarks: Trademarks help brands distinguish themselves from competitors (direct and indirect) by protecting their slogans, symbols, and company and product names.
  • Patents: Patents protect businesses’ unique processes, methods, and inventions for at least 20 years, meaning no other business can make, sell, or distribute your invention.
  • Copyrights: For creative brands and artists, copyrights protect creative works like music, poetry, books, motion pictures, and architecture.
  • Trade secrets: Trade secrets contain private information a business owns for a competitive advantage in its industry. Protecting your trade secrets prevents other businesses in the marketplace from acquiring and implementing the information.
  • Digital assets: Digital assets are a more recent form of IP that include things like software code and online content.

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

Steps to identify and protect your IP

Identify what type(s) of intellectual property your business has

Using the information above, determine the type or types of IP your business owns. Create a list so everything is organized and important pieces of IP aren’t missed. To help, the United States Patent Trademark Office (USPTO) has a new IP Identifier tool that identifies which types of IP your business has/needs to protect.

Educate yourself on the specific type of IP you want to protect

Once you identify the IP you own, you need to understand the specific protections available for that type of IP. According to Warren Tuttle, Co-Chair of the Creator Committee of the USIPA and Founder of Tuttle Innovation, business owners should familiarize themselves with the USPTO so they can learn about the patent system.

Different types of IP protection last for different amounts of time.

“You [can] put in keywords and inventors, … business startups and all types of things, and you can access a plethora of information on the site [that can give] you some direction of where to go,” Tuttle said. “This could be helpful in getting knowledge and an awareness [of] … what IP [protection] might be the best for you.”

Get legal assistance to file your IP protections

Legal assistance is key when it comes to filing IP protections. While you alone can file for provisional patents that last for a 12-month period, you will eventually want to file a non-provisional regular patent within that first year.

“As you start to get more knowledgeable, you really have to get legal assistance,” Tuttle said. “Any type of real filing … requires a really good attorney.”

Tuttle also recommended educating yourself on potential legal issues by consulting an organization called the American Intellectual Property Law Association, or finding more local help and resources.

[Read more: 12 Ways to Protect Your Startup’s Intellectual Property]

Understand how long your IP protection will last and what the next steps are

Different types of IP protection last for different amounts of time. For example, copyrights don’t expire until at least 70 years after the creator’s death

“On utility … and design patents, it's a 20-year agreement, so you cannot protect it for a lifetime,” Tuttle said. “But therein lies the genius of the patent system — people get to prosper — but then we open it up for competition eventually.”

“As far as trademarks … to keep your name out there, you have to do a certain amount of business, which means you have to have some success,” he continued. “If you have a product or business that doesn't make it, maybe after [several] years, you don't need to trademark anymore [and] you'll shut it down.”

Trade secrets, on the other hand, last indefinitely — so long as the information is kept confidential. Digital assets are treated similarly: If the assets are kept safe and protected from potential breaches, they can continue to be protected as intellectual property.

“All these things have fee arrangements and … you have to check in from time to time to make sure you're [registering properly],” Tuttle said. “It’s sort of like registering with the state or federal government when you're a small business: You have to pay all your taxes and all that stuff, [and] you do have to stay … on top of this stuff and not let deadlines slip.”

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.

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
Not sure where to begin in getting your business’s finances in order? Navigating the complex finances of a growing start-up can be daunting. Learn about the key financial operations that will keep your startup running smoothly — from payroll to bookkeeping to taxes — in this guide.
Learn More