Wise Up: Protecting Intellectual Property

Know basic rules for company assets

It does not take a genius to recognize the importance of your company’s “intellectual property,” including trademarks, copyrights, patents and trade secrets. Although an item of intellectual property is not as tangible as an automobile, a desk or a piece of equipment, it may be among the most valuable assets owned by your company. This is particularly true for companies in certain industries—those in the scientific and medical fields immediately come to mind—but it can apply across the board. 

Basic parameters: Patents are used to protect inventions, copyrights provide protection for artistic and literary works, and trademarks give companies the exclusive right to use their unique identifying symbol. In general, these properties should be registered with the federal government. In the case of trademarks and patents, the registration is handled within the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Copyrights are registered by submitting the work to the Library of Congress. 

If a business fails to act promptly to protect its intellectual property, it may forfeit its rights. Similarly, if you permit others to use your trademark, the public at large can eventually use it. Many common product names (e.g., aspirin) were once trademarks that have been lost over time. 

How long does the protection of intellectual property last? It depends on the type of property. For example, a patent is generally good for 20 years. On the other hand, copyrights remain in effect for the author’s life plus 70 years. Corporate copyrights are good for the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. If you think copyrights are just for books and plays, think again. They may also protect such diverse items as music recordings and computer programs. Note that there is no time limit on trademarks. 

How can you protect your company in this area? With the help of an experienced attorney, you should regularly review the status of your intellectual property. For example, in a larger company you might meet with representatives of the research, marketing and financial departments to discuss potential conflicts. 

Besides reviewing assets that have already been recognized as intellectual property, discuss new items that may be added. This includes an examination of all products and processes to uncover patentable technology as well as potential trademarks. 

How often should a review be conducted? On a periodic basis—perhaps once a year. In addition, other events such as a merger, acquisition or an initial public offering may trigger the need for a review. 

Finally, your company should take precautions in connection with its trade secrets. Make sure that employees who have access to trade secrets are covered by confidentiality agreements or noncompete agreements—or both. Do not hesitate to seek professional assistance regarding these matters.