As the recording and movie industries have learned all too well over the last few decades, in this age of digital everything, it can be difficult to protect your intellectual property.

This is true beyond stealing songs and movies, too. Look around the web and you can see all kinds of instances of sites copying each other’s’ designs, ideas, and even exact content. For bigger companies, this is usually little more than a nuisance, but if you’re an entrepreneurial small business owner, your intellectual property is likely the lifeblood of your business.

After all, if you draft a uniquely successful seminar that helps people to start their own businesses and someone copies it and opens up a competing site, it could cost you a lot of money!

So, how can you be sure that your work is protected? There are a number of ways, but all require policing, and none are foolproof.

Copyright. The easiest way to protect any creative work that has been “tangibly expressed.” Why? Because you don’t have to do anything to get the protection; as soon as you create the work, you automatically have a copyright on it. At least, that’s how it works in the United States. Other countries do things differently. Some people like to use the copyright symbol (©) to let would-be thieves know to stay away, but you don’t have to include it with your work, and in some cases it can appear tacky.

Patent. If you can get one for your intellectual property, patents last for 20 years and make for great protection. Unfortunately, the process by which you attain a patent is long and complicated – oh, and it only applies to “new, useful, and non-obvious” inventions, though what exactly constitutes an invention can (and has been) heavily debated. Those who want to explore getting a patent are advised to talk to a lawyer.

Registered and non-registered trademark. Trademarks are quite useful, but they are even more limited (in terms of what they’ll cover) than patents. The only thing you can trademark is a brand name like Nike, Coca-Cola, or John’s Gut-Busting Diet. How do you establish a trademark? Easy. Just use the ™ symbol whenever you write the brand name. If you want to get really serious about protecting the name of your brand, you can make sure your name isn’t already in use by checking the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) and registering it if it’s available. Then, instead of ™ you can use ®.

Of course, none of this guarantees people won’t try to steal your intellectual property (again, remember the recording and movie companies!), so here are some things that you can do after you’ve laid claim to a particular work you’ve created to give you added protection and fight back.

Make people sign NDAs. What’s an NDA? It’s a piece of paper saying that the person signing it agrees not to reveal or otherwise take any of your ideas as their own. If they do, you can sue them. Most often, these forms are used for employees and contractors when employers feel that they have products or ideas too valuable to give to the competition.

Use Copyscape. Afraid people are copying your brilliant and well-loved blog posts and passing them off as their own? Copyscape might just be your best friend. You can put your content through Copyscape’s site and it will search the web to see if there are any matching pages – or even partial matches – so that you can track down thieves.

Cease and desist. One of the simplest legal tools you can use against pesky idea thieves is a cease and desist letter send from your attorney. On their own, these letters can’t really do much, but often people will see them and pull copied content down because they’re afraid. That’s all you really want anyway, right?

Lawyer up. If someone just won’t back down about stealing and using your intellectual property, you can always sue them. Just remember to really think it through before you take this step, because it’s most likely going to take quite a bit of time and money. Is it really worth it? What damage are these thieves really doing to your business? Would you be better off working on your next great idea?

About the Author: Jennifer Motian has been involved in the patent brokerage industry for a long time. Once an entrepreneur, she knows how frustrating it can be to have your ideas stolen.

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