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Whether you are starting a company or developing a product, domestically or abroad, you always need to make sure that your ideas are well protected. All business relationships involve a certain amount of risk, but by taking the proper steps you can assure yourself that if something should go awry, your intellectual property will be safe.
According to William Northcote, business attorney from Toronto, “Intellectual property is a collection of legal rights that protect the creative work of individuals. It’s a way that the intellectual efforts of creators are recognized and typically given some sort of protection that allows them to commercialize that and profit from it.”
Your intellectual property (IP) is perhaps your most valuable asset when starting a business, therefore its protection should be your first objective. It is important that you identify how your IP could be stolen, who would be most likely to steal it and then do whatever you can to prevent that from happening. The most common safeguards against IP theft are trademarks, copyrights, and patents.
A trademark is a name, word, phrase, logo, symbol, design, image or a combination of these elements that identify a product. Trademarks are nationally based, so if you are planning on taking your product or company global you will have to look into obtaining trademarks for each of the countries in which you are going to be operating. Your product can also dictate where you should trademark. For example, if you’re making skis you probably don’t need to worry about obtaining a trademark in Jamaica.
Trademarks and copyrights are often confused for one another, as Northcote puts it, “A trademark is a word or logo that protects the goodwill in goods and services. A copyright is a statutory right that protects the expression of an idea.” While trademarks differ from country to country, copyrights are recognized in most developed countries due to a series of international treaties. If you are a resident of a country that is part of this treaty system you have copyright protection in the other countries.
A patent is necessary when you have a physical invention and want to prevent others from duplicating your work. Northcote defines it as, “a statutory monopoly that protects an invention and in that case it protects the expression of the idea.” There are three criteria that your invention needs to be able to demonstrate to qualify for a patent. First of all, it has to be novel or original. Second, it has to have some utility, be functional, or operate in some way. And third, it has to show inventive ingenuity and it cannot be obvious to someone skilled in the particular technical field of your product.
When you file a patent, Northcote advises using a patent agent with a background in the field that your invention is in. “They need to be able to understand the invention in the context of development in the field and they have to develop a patent application that reflects that technical background,” Northcote explains.
Even with all of the legal paperwork filled out, you cannot prevent someone from attempting to rip off your product, but you do have to power to choose who you work with. Northcote points out, “Partner selection is perhaps the most important thing of all.” In some areas of the world people will want to develop a personal relationship before forming a business relationship. It is ideal to partner with someone for a smaller project before going into the big one in order to get a feeling for each other. Northcote jokes, “Sometimes in our firm we say; let’s have the clients date a while before they get married.”