Laws regarding intellectual property rights are intended to encourage individuals and businesses to create and innovate without fear that a competitor will steal their ideas and directly reap benefits from their work.
Annually, intellectual property theft, such as counterfeiting and piracy, totals an estimated $250 billion, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Since small businesses typically lack the resources that larger companies have to guard against intellectual property theft, they are often at greater risk. For example, the USPTO notes that only a minority of small companies engaged in international business are aware that a U.S. patent or trademark does not provide protection overseas.
Patents, Copyright and Trademarks
There are three basic forms of intellectual property rights protection: patents, copyright and trademarks. Patents are used primarily by inventors and are granted for “new, useful and non-obvious inventions,” extending for 20 years from the filing date, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. It’s important to note that different nations have their own patent laws, meaning inventors may have to file patents in each country in which they wish to protect their invention.
Copyright law applies to the authorship of original works, such as music, song lyrics, books and screenplays. Copyright can protect published and unpublished works against illegal reproduction, performance and distribution. As with patents, copyright depends on the laws of individual countries, although many nations will protect foreign works through international treaties and agreements.
According to the Department of Commerce, a trademark is essentially a brand name. It can include names, words, designs or symbols, individually or in combination, that are used to distinguish a business’ goods from those of another company.
Although sometimes confused with trademarks, a trade name is not the same thing. Instead, it is the name under which a company conducts business and is sometimes referred to as a fictitious name or doing business as (d/b/a) name. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) notes that a trade name does not protect a company’s brand name.
Protecting a Business Name Online and Offline
There are many things to consider when selecting a business name. Practical considerations include choosing a name that reflects the products, services, and general business plan and strategy of the company. Of course, the name shouldn’t have been used or claimed by others and shouldn’t violate existing trademarks. The SBA also recommends that business owners consider any connotations and associations potential names might evoke.
Owners should make sure that a business name is Web-ready. In other words, names should be easy to pronounce and spell so potential customers can find the business through an online search. Using a name that contains search engine-friendly keywords associated with the nature of the business can also help in this regard. The SBA recommends that business owners conduct a domain search to gauge whether a website address, or URL, is available and can be claimed.
Once selected, the d/b/a name must be registered in the company’s home state, unless it’s the owner’s personal name or the legal name of a partnership or corporation. Owners may also want to file for trademark protection. On the World Wide Web, meanwhile, it’s a good idea to be proactive and claim any domains that are similar to, or common misspellings of, the selected name. Owners should also explore claiming other digital property, such as social media profile and page names.
Protecting Intellectual Property in Foreign Markets
Since many forms of intellectual property rights protection are only enforceable in the United States, expanding a business globally can create opportunities for foreign competitors to interfere without regard to those protections. Businesses must take steps to protect their intellectual property from theft in other countries.
Such theft, including piracy and counterfeiting, poses significant threats to American businesses and consumers: Companies can face unfair competition abroad; and consumers may face health and safety risks associated with counterfeited products.
Before exporting goods to another nation, businesses should make use of the resources available through the International Trade Administration and the Office of Intellectual Property Rights, both of which are divisions of the Department of Commerce. In addition, the federal government provides online access to Intellectual Property Rights Toolkits that outline safeguards and recommendations relating to a number of nations, including China.
Dean Vella writes about business and leadership on behalf of University Alliance, a facilitator of online certificate programs in business administration, and leadership and management.
University of Notre Dame & Bisk Education