You’ve got plenty of great ideas. It’s the foundation that holds up your business. But in the eyes of the court, your original ideas may not always be your own.
Intellectual property laws are meant to support progress. Protecting innovators means they are more likely to release their designs into the world. But with the wealth of ideas out there, you might accidentally cross into someone else’s intellectual property.
The right process
There are four main kinds of intellectual property. Each covers a different concept of ownership and has distinct terms for violation:
- Copyrights:The exclusive right to a piece of work. It’s meant to protect the unique product, but not the general idea. Compositions by Mozart have long been in the public domain but using a performance by the Colorado Symphony may count as infringement.
- Trademarks: Less concrete than copyrights, you could sidestep into a trademark violation when ideas get too close. Similar product names or logos are often the culprits. Having a smiling red cow for your ice cream shop could be confused with the smiling blue cow from the shop up the street.
- Patents: Businesses often file with utility and design patents, which allow inventors the sole right to their processes and styles. Say you’re in the business of making Ralphie the Buffalo bobbleheads. If you get too close to a competitor’s vision of Ralphie as a nodding paperweight, it may be grounds for action.
- Trade secrets: You can’t use anything that isn’t public knowledge for an advantage. You’re vying for the contract to supply Coors Field with their chocolate-drizzled fruit on a stick. You’ve got an employee that used to work for the current vendor and they have privileged contract information. Using that to undercut the competition could count as abusing trade secrets.
Research is the best step you can take toward avoiding infringement. Pour over existing copyrights, trademarks and patents to determine if your product or process may be close to crossing a line. Know what counts as a violation and avoid getting too close to the hard work of a fellow business owner.
Your original ideas may not always be original enough. Being aware of intellectual property limitations can help you steer your business to a safe heading, and maybe even help you innovate in new directions.