Entrepreneurs, whether they are independent consultants, inventors or building retail or service businesses always have
questions they want to be able to ask an expert. We rely on the ability to occasionally “pick the brain” of one of these
experts to gain the tidbits of knowledge needed to be able to move an enterprise forward. In this monthly series I will
talk about some of the common topics that come up for entrepreneurs and ask these experts some of the most common
and some uncommon, questions entrepreneurs have so we can all benefit from the knowledge they are willing to share.
This month’s topic focuses on Intellectual Property. Every time I talk to entrepreneurs the subject of Intellectual
Property in the form of a Patent, Trademark or Copyright comes up. Most entrepreneurs don’t realize that Trade
Secrets are another type of Intellectual Property to be protected. There always seems to be a lot of confusion around
the differences between them and what, if any, type of Intellectual Property protection they need.
Mike Schacht, an Intellectual Property Attorney with Schacht Law Office in Bellingham, WA breaks it down this way:
Utility patents protect the utilitarian aspects of a product, manufacturing method, business method, or the like, while
design patents cover ornamental aspects of a utilitarian object.
Trademarks rights can be established in any word, logo, color, shape, or other symbol capable distinguishing the goods
or services of one party from those of the other. Trademarks protect the goodwill of a business, but they also protect the
public from being confused as to the source of goods or services.
Copyrights generally protect the expression of an idea. Copyrightable subject matter includes artistic works such as
paintings, music, literature, and the like but also includes commercial works such as software and instruction manuals.
Trade secrets protect information that is capable of being maintained as a secret and for which reasonable steps have
been taken to maintain the information secret. Examples of common information that can be protected as a trade secret
include recipes, formulas, layout of manufacturing facilities, customer lists, supplier lists, source code, and the like.
The subject of Intellectual Property and patents in particular, is more relevant to inventors and understanding what type
of IP applies to them is a critical first step to the process of taking an invention to market:
An inventor with an idea should know before consulting with a patent attorney: (1) a patent application must be filed
within one year of the first sale, offer for sale, public use, or publication of the invention in the United States and prior to
public disclosure for most foreign countries; (2) the United States is now under a first-to- file system, so getting an early
filing date can be important; and (3) a search is not required, but gathering as much information (e.g., searching) early
in the process will allow the inventor to prevent problems from occurring in the future. With internet searches, the
search strategy is critical, and the ultimate questions (e.g., patentability) can be somewhat subjective. Similar searches
can be performed to clear potential trademarks.
No matter the enterprise, every entrepreneur should have a basic understanding of Intellectual Property and consider
investing in protecting the elements that contribute to their competitive advantages and create value for a company.
*This piece originally appeared in the Bellingham Herald.