Tim Gillis, Attorney at Law of Jacksonville law firm GILLIS WAY & CAMPBELL was recently interviewed for his knowledge and experience on intellectual property. Learn important information and tips.
Q: As a business owner, how do I protect my intellectual property?
Gillis: One of the most important things for a business is to protect its intellectual property. This is because for most businesses, your intellectual property is your most valuable asset. While it is an intangible asset in that you cannot touch or feel it, it does make money for your business. We are talking about your trademark. So, for example, what is your name? What is your slogan? What do people know you as? If someone was to open a business next door to you with a name that was deceivingly similar to yours, would it cause confusion in the marketplace? If so, it will cost you customers and money.
This also includes copyrights, especially if you create software. If you write software and someone steals your code, that is a big problem. It is the same as if someone were to plagiarize a book. There are patents for when you come up with an invention or an idea, and you want to be certain that you are the one who commercially exploits it, since you spent the time and effort to actually develop the patent.
Additionally, there are trade secrets which protect the confidential information that helps you run your business and make money.
There are definite ways to protect patents, trademarks, and copyrights and to register them to put the public on notice that they are not to use them. There are also means to protect trade secrets. Typically, you have to protect yourself against insiders, such as your own employees, as well as outsiders, such as random third parties to people you do business with.
Q: How do I protect myself from insiders stealing my intellectual property?
Gillis: With a company, your insiders are your trusted key employees who have access to your software, to your customer lists, and other information. You train them and they become embedded in your business. How do you protect yourself from them if they turn on you? The most common method is to put in place restrictive covenants or non-competes. Generally speaking, these are agreements that state that while your employee is working for you and for a period of time afterwards, he or she cannot compete with you in your business. There are limitations on this, which usually are geographic scope, time limitation, and whether or not you are being reasonable. The key to having someone sign a non-compete is to enforce it.
Non-solicitation agreements protect the business owner from a key employee soliciting other key employees away from the business after they leave. General confidentiality agreements keep employees from sharing trade secrets. There are things you can do to reduce your risk but you must be vigilant in case someone actually betrays your trust.
Q: How do I protect myself from having outsiders steal my intellectual property?
Gillis: With respect to trademarks and patents, a business can protect itself from outsiders stealing intellectual property through the registration process. If you file with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and an issue with a trademark or patent arises, then the public is put on notice that the trademark or patent is your property. If someone infringes on the trademark or patent, you will have great cause of action sue them, make them stop using it, and possibly pay your damages. For copyrights, such as computer codes being stolen, you can protect yourself by registering them, putting solid contracts in place, and knowing who you are doing business with. You need to make certain you have confidentiality agreements in place with your vendors, perhaps even non-competes with your vendors, in addition to protections in place for insiders as well.