Many small business owners don’t give much thought to their intellectual property, otherwise known as IP. But it’s an area of increasing importance to many businesses. IP refers to all of the intangible assets that a business develops – product names, logos, inventions, trademarks, designs and other information – that are products of the mind, rather than products of machinery. Just as you can own tangible property, such as buildings and inventory, you can also own intellectual property – if you take proper steps to establish and protect that ownership.

Big companies – and especially those in the technology space – have always spent huge amounts of money to develop and protect ideas. But even service businesses and one-person shops have IP.

These days, small inventors sometimes have hundreds of patents. Individual inventors and small businesses are still the ones who create the vast majority of patent activity. In fact, small businesses receive nearly 15 times the number of patents per employee as larger companies, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

While patents and other intellectual property are vital to smaller businesses, however, those businesses often lack resources for managing IP issues. Consider a small, consumer products brand that designs bags, totes and cases of all kinds. The firm’s CEO says he spends nearly 20 percent of his time on IP and enforcement, and his business spends more on IP than it does on marketing.

Here are some things small businesses can do to establish, protect and cash in on IP assets:

1. Devise an IP strategy According to Jeff Lindgren, an IP attorney in Walnut Creek, CA, your first step is to create an IP strategy. “Start with the outcomes you want from exploiting your intellectual property assets and create a strategy that leverages the entire spectrum of techniques, including patenting, designating ideas as trade secrets, and trademark and copyright law,” he says. Take an inventory of all the things that might be considered IP for your business – starting with your business name and any unique names you’ve devised for your products and services. 

2. Execute proper agreements with freelancers. If your business uses independent contractors to help develop IP assets (logos for example), it is vital that all written contractor agreements specifically establish your full ownership of any developed IP. Beware of using independent contractors who are actually employees at large technology companies (a common practice). They might have conflicting employment agreements that say any IP they develop belongs to their big company employer.

3. Get up to speed on IP issues: A good place for a fast and authoritative primer is the U.S. Patent & Trademark website at USPTO.gov. You’ll find excellent sections on parent basics, trademark basis, FAQs and a wide range of other information in the Learning & Resources section. Check out the Inventors & Entrepreneurs section in particular. It’s all easily findable at the top of the home page.

4. Shop your IP via licensing agreements.  You can also try to cash in on some of your IP. Several websites offer new and affordable ways for small businesses and inventors to license or sell IP. Check out IPmarket.com, NewIdeaTrade.com and IPauctions.com where you can list your IP assets for sale.

5.Protect your website IP, too: In an effort to attract and service customers, small businesses sometimes post intellectual property on websites. Be aware that whatever you place online can be easily pilfered by almost anyone. At a minimum, include a “Terms of Use” section on your site that spells out your intellectual property ownership.

6. Look beyond borders: The Internet has made intellectual property rights a global pursuit. Small businesses are especially vulnerable to overseas theft of IP assets. Attempts to manage this have been stepped up in recent years. The World Intellectual Property Association (www.wipo.int) has an excellent guide to international IP rights for small business.   

7. Get good IP legal advice: There’s no substitute for savvy legal advice when it comes to creating, protecting and selling your intellectual property. The USPTO keeps a list of active IP attorneys on its site. Or you can quickly search for IP attorneys in your area at Findlaw.com.

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About the Author(s)

Daniel Kehrer

Daniel Kehrer, Founder & Managing Director of BizBest Media Corp., is a nationally-known, award-winning expert on small and local business, start-ups, content marketing, entrepreneurship and social media, with an MBA from UCLA/Anderson. 

Founder & Managing Director, BizBest
Intellectual Property