Business owners these days can't afford NOT to protect their biggest assets. And in order to protect those big assets (insert funny 🍑 joke here), you first have to understand them.
But the law is pretty complicated. And one of the most complicated parts of business law is this thing called "intellectual property."
"But what exactly IS intellectual property?"
As a business lawyer, I've helped thousands of entrepreneurs get clarity around this question.
So if you've asked this question before, you are FAR FROM alone, my friend.
The reality is ... most business owners don't really understand what "intellectual property rights" are.
And the rest just nod along to hide the fact that they don't know either.
So that's what we're gonna solve in this blog post.
After reading this, you'll discover what's really going on with these "intellectual property" rights. And once we better understand what these rights are, we can get clarity on what it means to infringe on those rights.
So let's do this!
First things first. Let's get our terms straight here.
Intellectual property is sometimes shortened to "IP" by lawyers, entrepreneurs, and people who like abbreviations.
(Tom Haverford from Parks & Rec would make a great IP lawyer.)
IP is an umbrella of different kinds of rights that mostly include the following ...
NOTE: In addition to intellectual property rights, you may also be constrained by certain contract language. Some clauses in contracts claim and enforce your intellectual property rights (see above) while other clauses can create or extend protections/limitations beyond those rights (such as non-disclosure, non-compete, license, and confidentiality clauses).
As you can see above, intellectual property assets must be in a fixed or tangible form to exist as intellectual property rights.
In other words ...
BUUUT ... be careful. If you signed a contract addressing non-disclosure/non-compete/
This is a great question to ask yourself as a business owner. So if you've made it this far, way to go!!
While the answer isn't as black and white as most people would like, it's absolutely critical for entrepreneurs to understand the basics here.
Infringement of intellectual property can come in different forms. Such as ...
"Wait, hold up. I was following until that last part. What do you mean with this "or something confusingly similar" bit?"
That's right. This extra wrinkle is what makes trademark infringement such a gray area.
Imagine this ...
Let's say you want to build a brand called "The Leveled Up Entrepreneur." And because you're a smart & savvy entrepreneur, you want to create a lot of assets around this. Like ...
And so you head over to GoDaddy or some other domain service and — woohoo — the domain is available!
You look on Facebook, Instagram, iTunes — the phrase hasn't been taken yet. Phew!
Heck, you even run a quick trademark search, and no one has trademarked that exact phrase.
Well, don't get too excited!!
Most business owners stop there, assume they're safe, and then go nuts building a brand around that phrase.
Turns out, that's actually a super dangerous thing to do. Want to know why?
You guessed it — because of this "or something confusingly similar" thing!
When a business registers their trademark with the U.S. government, that business gets VERY strong brand protections.
And yes, if you were ever confused by that little ® symbol, it means that it's a U.S. registered trademark.
When you've got a registered trademark, you get NATIONWIDE exclusive rights to that trademark.
But your exclusive rights are not limited to just that trademark specifically.
You also get exclusive rights to — you guessed it — anything confusingly similar to your trademark!
This broad trademark protection is awesome if you own a registered trademark.
But if your trademarks aren't registered, these broad protections can cause you a lot of headaches.
Let's go back to our "The Leveled Up Entrepreneur" example. If you just did your little brand audit we outlined above, you might think you're all good.
But what about when you search the trademark database ... and find over 200 applications that include "LEVEL UP"?
Here's the thing.
Even though the exact phrase "The Leveled Up Entrepreneur" may not be "taken" so to speak, is it too similar to one of these other trademarks?
This is why conversations around trademarks and infringement is particularly tricky.
Okay, let's move beyond trademarks. What about copyrights?
How can you tell infringement from inspiration?
After all, aren't all entrepreneurs just recreating what we've learned/seen/experienced and putting our own spin on it?
Well, the line between inspiration and infringement often depends on the situation. It's definitely not black and white.
Let's say you're inspired by a copyrighted work, like an online course you bought. If you decide to create a program that is similar in content, you had better be careful that it is sufficiently different from the original, especially if you intend to monetize it.
In other words ... if some key elements of your content and/or branding substantially resembles elements of an earlier work that you were aware of, and have therefore drawn inspiration from, then you could be accused of infringement.
Lots of business owners make the mistake of stopping their analysis on what is and is not infringement.
It's important to think beyond the technical legalities ... and think practically. What can you do to minimize being accused of infringement, regardless of the merits?
Accusations themselves result in significant time and effort to resolve.
And now you know a what's up with this whole "intellectual property" thing!
(Queue the happy dance!)
Isn't time you legit OWNED your brand? After helping thousands of entrepreneurs on the legal side, I'm handing over my exact, step-by-step method for calling dibs on your trademarks (without needing to hire a lawyer) ... for FREE! Learn more here.