Start-Up Launchpad Blog

How to Protect Intellectual Property - July 2, 2012

Emily E. Harris, Patent Attorney

Many startups have similar foundations: a great idea, a focused team and an endless supply of energy drinks. Most businesses have intellectual property (IP), but in the excitement of focusing on the startup concept, the IP issues that surround it often get pushed aside or ignored altogether.


As a result, there are countless war stories about startups and IP, from the enterprising tattoo artist who bested the movie studio that created "The Hangover Part II" in a claim for copyright infringement, to the startup behind Dippin' Dots that lost its patent rights to its summer treat because an application wasn't filed in time.


Knowing where to begin with protecting IP can be daunting, especially since each type has its own set of rules. Four key issues to attend to when starting a business:

  • Identify the IP. There are four types of IP: patents (inventions), trademarks (brand names and logos), copyrights (software, website design, advertising materials, music and photographs) and trade secrets (information that provides an advantage because it is secret, including customer lists, recipes and business plans).
  • Secure the IP. When hiring outside parties such as Web developers, software coders or marketing companies, startups must take precautions to ensure ownership of the work's IP, usually in a written contract with specific IP provisions.
  • Protect the IP. Not all IP must be registered for rights to exist, but there are some instances in which registration is required (patents), and others in which it is advantageous (trademarks and copyrights).
  • Clear the IP. It is best to check for others' use of similar IP, especially trademarks, before adoption. Checking first can avoid costly lawsuits and subsequent rebranding.


Attention to these issues from the outset can result in huge payoffs, while ignoring them can have devastating consequences.