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Protecting Intellectual Property is Smart Business

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Piracy and intellectual property theft are on the rise. Small businesses in the U.S. are especially vulnerable, in part because they usually are not well-versed in how to protect themselves, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The problem has become so severe that the agency established an intellectual property Web site for small businesses to brush up on this critical area.

The World Intellectual Property Organization defines intellectual property as "creations of the mind: inventions, literary and artistic works, and symbols, names, images and designs used in commerce." There are two categories of intellectual property. One includes patents for inventions and trademarks, while the other covers copyrights for literary and artistic works that help protect your intellectual property.

You can protect your intellectual property in the United States if you register for patents, trademarks and copyrights with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This is protected by federal law, and the agency is dedicated to fighting intellectual property crime inside and outside of the United States.

The U.S. and other governments have had difficulty fighting piracy beyond their borders, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urge small business owners take steps to safeguard their intellectual property globally by seeking protection in the form of trademarks and copyrights. There are three discrete types of intellectual property, with differing means of protection.

  • Patents give companies or individuals full rights over their inventions inside the United States. Patented inventions cannot be sold, created or imported by others while protected. They must be considered useful and will not receive patent protection if they are known to already exist or are in use by others in the United States or elsewhere, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

  • If the inventions were written about in a publication in the United States or any other country, the patent likewise will be rejected. In the U.S., patents generally are good for 20 years. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office strongly advises that inventors use attorneys when applying for patents. Patents must be applied for in each country.

  • Trademarks give owners exclusive rights over their business names, logos and other symbols. These symbols and words must be used for commercial purposes to qualify for trademark protection. Registration is not necessary for protection in the United States, as some trademark protection is provided when businesses begin using their names and symbols. Registration is, however, the best way to protect your intellectual property.

  • Copyrights protect original works of authorship, according to U.S. copyright law. You gain rights simply by creating materials, but if you want to officially copyright your materials, including music, art and writings, register with the U.S. Copyright Office. Your writings can be unpublished and still be protected.

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