According to statistics from the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property, the American economy loses $300 million per year from intellectual property (IP) theft. If American businesses did a better job of protecting their IP, American companies could potentially add as many as 2.1 million jobs back into the U.S. Economy. Unfortunately, although many small businesses on Main Street have customers all over the globe, many lack the resources to protect their IP.
Sometimes, the problem is a lack of knowledge. For example, only 15 percent of small business owners, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademarks Office (USPTO), know that if they do business overseas, they have to apply for IP protection overseas. Because their resources are tight, many small companies also fail to buy small-business virus protection products. When cyberattackers try to steal their IP, many small businesses have no defenses.
What is IP?
IP is a product of the human mind, such as an invention, story, logo, graphic, slogan, or manufacturing process, which gives its creators an innovative edge. The law recognizes four types of intellectual property:
A patent gives people the right to make, use, and sell a unique invention, discovery, or process for 20 years; patents for designs last for 14 years. To be patented, an invention has to be useful, novel, and not obvious in light of current technology. In the U.S., the first person to file a patent for an invention gets the patent, not necessarily the first person who thinks of the invention.
Businesses can trademark words, phrases, logos, symbols, color combinations, and designs that are distinctive about a product. Trademarks usually fall into these categories:
- Distinctive names. Inventive words like Xerox or Kodak serve as distinctive trademarks. Additionally, words used out of context can become distinctive trademarks, such as the use of Dutch Boy to describe a paint brand.
- Secondary meanings. Some trademarks become so strongly associated with a brand that they develop a secondary meaning. For example, Amazon’s Kindle has such a strong name, or trademark, that many people use the word “Kindle” to describe almost every e-book reader on the market.
- Trade dress. Companies can trademark the way that they package or present a product. For example, Apple has trademarked the layout of the Apple Store.
- Certification or collective marks. Trademarks like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval are recognized certification marks while a mark signifying that a product is made by a union is a collective mark.
Copyright protects writing and other creative work that is fixed in a tangible medium. Once a person has written a song, authored a book, or painted an image in a tangible way, the work receives copyright protection. Registering a copyright provides added protection, including the right to sue for up to $150,000 in damages for copyright infringement.
Trade secrets are pieces of information, like chemical formulas, blueprints, manufacturing processes, or marketing formulas that have independent economic value outside of the person or company who created them.
Ways to Protect IP
By protecting IP, America’s Founding Fathers hoped to encourage people to make new things as a way of moving society forward. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gave Congress the power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Small businesses can take a few steps to protect the IP in the U.S.:
- Apply for patents, and register trademarks and copyrights. Small businesses can apply for patents and register trademarks with the USPTO. They can also register copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office.
- Get confidentiality agreements to protect trade secrets. To protect their trade secrets, small businesses can ask employees, contractors, suppliers, and other stakeholders to sign non-disclosure agreements.
- Mount a strong cyberdefense. Most IP theft against American companies comes from overseas, and it happens when small businesses don’t invest in virus protection and network security. Companies should make sure that they protect their networks, servers, and endpoint devices with strong security measures, especially as hacking remains rampant.
Prosecuting patent, trademark, or copyright infringement after it happens can cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. That’s why small businesses should take proactive measures to prevent IP theft in the digital age.