Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery. But for an upstart business bringing a new product to market, contending with copycats can be stressful and costly. An invention might be the lifeblood of the business, and premature competition can rob it of growth. Patents are meant to help protect entrepreneurs, but unscrupulous competitors can still try and tweak an idea to skirt enforcement. Before you take your business idea public, consider talking to a patent attorney and review these tips to help safeguard your innovations. Tweet This

Obtain a Provisional Patent

Winning a patent for a new invention can be an expensive, sluggish process. Filing for a patent may be especially frustrating if this is your first application. In light of this, the United States Patent and Trademark Office allows inventors to file provisional patents to try and stake an early claim to an idea. If a low-cost provisional patent is granted, the inventor can use the term “patent pending” when describing his innovation. The patent-pending mark on sales materials and business plans can serve as a shot across the bow to potential copycats.

While anyone can file a provisional patent, coverage is limited to 12 months. At some point during that period, the inventor must file a traditional patent application. If approved, protection applies retroactively to the date the provisional patent was filed.

Be Discrete About Your Idea

When a business is starting out, it often has no choice but to release top-secret ideas to investors, contractors, and employees in the course of doing business. After all, a salesperson needs to understand a product when pitching potential customers.

It’s important to share this information on a need-to-know basis. What might this look like for a tech start-up? A software engineer may need access to valuable source code, while a call-center representative will not. Each employee is working for the same company, but their interests do not fully overlap. Segmenting knowledge can reduce the chance of a damaging leak, or make it easier to identify the source if something does get out.

You should consider requiring employees to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) when they’re hired. These documents explain an employee or contractor’s responsibilities when it comes to keeping company information private. If you’ve been awarded a patent, written materials should be marked with the relevant symbol to offer an extra layer of protection.

Be Careful on Social Media

Before you start openly marketing your product online, be sure you have protections in place. Even then, details about how your product works should remain behind the scenes. This not only goes for your professional social networking efforts, but for your personal pages, as well. Be sure your employees and business partners remain mum on your ideas and inventions, since their social media posts could inspire copycats among their own friends and family members.

File for a Patent

Most entrepreneurs want the maximum protection for their intellectual property. Patents can be powerful instruments to enforce your business’s exclusive use of inventions or designs. The USPTO is responsible for granting patents. The patent process can be quite lengthy and there are associated costs. You can see a detailed overview of steps to take on the office’s website. Due to the complexity of obtaining a patent, it’s highly recommended that business owners consult with a patent attorney.

About Trade Dress, Trademark & Copyright Protection

Intellectual property right aren’t just a concern for inventors, as they can extend beyond physical goods. Business concepts, including decorative elements or employee uniforms, are eligible for protection if they meet certain standards.

Unlike traditional patents, a trade dress allows a person to protect product characteristics, design elements, restaurant decor, and similar innovations. By filing a concept with the USPTO, you can try to protect the unique characteristics that differentiate your product or business. The requirements to receive a trade dress are quite strict. This is understandable, since you’re seeking to protect an intangible element of a business.

Trademarks can protect business names, product titles, and logos, while creative professionals often seek copyright protection for their work. The USPTO handles these requests, as well. You can get more details on pursuing trademarks or a copyright on their website.

Without a patent, you’re risking your product or service being stolen by another company or individual, which can cause huge problems down the line. Remember Mark Zuckerberg being sued by the Winklevoss twins for intellectual property theft? Don’t put your business at risk, learn how to help minimize and manage risk before you’re in a compromising situation.

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