What you need to know to protect your intellectual property

By Pat Sisneros and Juergen Kneifel, Herald Columnists

You have a great invention or idea, and you think your creation could be the cornerstone of a profitable small business. What do you do?

Oftentimes, entrepreneurs will only after the fact consider protecting a creation that is considered intellectual property. Some go online, find an incredible “too good to be true” do-it-yourself-for-a-fee website and get taken.

That’s where things can get sticky, explained Priya Sinha Cloutier, a patent, trademark and copyright attorney for the Karr Tuttle Campbell Law Firm in Seattle. Cloutier recently spoke at a Women’s Small Business Workshop in Mukilteo and agreed to share some of her insights with us for this column.

Cloutier noted that not everything someone has created should immediately be sent off for patent or copyright protection.

One test is to determine whether or not the invention or creation is an asset to the business you’re running. If there is a clear and unique value to the business, then it should be protected as having a proprietary value. Then the business can choose to sell the rights or charge royalties for the intellectual property.

When collaborating with other professionals, it is extremely important to be clear about who owns the intellectual property.

“I’ve had clients who’ve been disappointed to learn that when they hired a Web designer to help with their business, that the intellectual property (the design) belonged to the designer because there was no explicit written agreement initially to identify that the work would belong wholly to the business paying for the design,” she said.

Obviously a hard lesson.

“It’s much easier to handle these matters beforehand through a written contract, rather than after the fact,” Cloutier added.

Knowing the basics about copyright law helps, too. A copyright protects more than a published book or newspaper. Web design falls under protection of the U.S. Copyright Office, which serves the public through the Library of Congress. Perhaps it’s this relationship that causes confusion for some with regard to limitation of copyrights to protecting literary works.

Actually, copyrights are also used to protect all forms of art, movies, film, drama, musicals, choreography, music (both score and lyrics), sound and architecture.

“Some copyrights are relatively easy to file if they are simple in nature,” she said. “But when music and or lyrics are involved, the submission can become tricky. And when you’re seeking trademark registration or filing for patent protection, the work becomes even more involved.”

Her advice is to “find a trusted attorney to review matters beforehand. Many reputable lawyers will provide a free initial consult in order provide a realistic estimate of the work involved,” she said.

Cloutier added, “Some lawyers work on a contingency while others will try to get a sense of the work connected with the project in billable hours and fees. Either way, you’re wise to shop around and find someone who you feel you can trust. Hiring a lawyer is all about relationship.”

To the do-it-yourselfer, she suggests reading several books before deciding how to proceed. “Patents for Dummies” is one of her favorite referrals.

We encourage entrepreneurs to become more familiar with how copyright affects their businesses, especially if you’re just starting out.

Pat Sisneros is the Vice President of College Services at Everett Community College. Juergen Kneifel is an Associate Faculty in the EvCC Entrepreneurship program. Please send your comments to entrepreneurship@everettcc.edu.