“I have been told to protect my intellectual property. What should I protect and how should I go about it?”
Intellectual property includes original works, names and logos, and unique products and processes and is protected by trademarks, patents and copyrights. They are the basics:
Trademarks protect a word, phrase, name or symbol that you use to identify the source of a product; a service mark provides the same protection for a service offering. Trademarks and service marks prevent others from using names and logos that would be easily confused with yours but do not prevent others offering similar goods or services under a different name. Do a search before coming up with your company or product name (to ensure you are not infringing on others’ marks) and register your trademarks.
Patents are the most difficult and expensive to obtain; they protect the actual article you produce or process you use. Your design or process must be unique, useful and non-obvious. To apply for a patent you need a complete description of the design or process, usually requiring engineering and legal assistance. Although you can use the term “patent pending” as of the filing date, you have no protection until a patent is issued, and it could take months or years before the actual patent is granted (or denied).
A patent can be valuable as a deterrent to a competitor. And if you have a truly revolutionary concept, a well-protected patent might be worth a lot to someone willing to license (or buy) the patented product, service or process. But it’s quite expensive to challenge patent infringement. A large company can make a minor modification, hire a bunch of lawyers and leave you in a hopeless position. Consider whether you would be willing to spend the time and money necessary to protect your patent.
Copyrights are the simplest of the three. A copyright protects an original work of authorship. It prevents others from copying what you write, draw, photograph, etc., without your permission. You own the copyright in a work once it is created and reduced to any tangible form, but you must register a copyright to be able to enforce it. Copyrights don’t protect against such things as others writing about the same topic in their own words or photographing the same landmark.
In summary, be sure to get appropriate trademark/service mark and copyright protection and consider a cost/benefit analysis regarding patents. These intangible assets can add value to your company now and when it is time to sell.