Intellectual property strategy

Types of Intellectual property

Maximize protection of your intellectual property (IP) by strategically employing patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets.  

In theory, the different categories of IP (utility patents, provisional patents, design patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets) are distinct. However, in practice, these can somewhat overlap. Each is a type of IP protection tool. Sometimes one tool is clearly superior.  Sometimes more than one tool will work. But using the wrong tool can produce unsatisfactory results.

Patents (utility patents) cover useful, original, and not obvious ideas for gadgets, physical objects, compositions of matter (e.g. drugs), and the like. These must be filed, carefully reviewed, and ultimately disclosed to the public. They can last for up to 20 years if maintenance fees are paid.

Provisional patents are essentially a short-lived (1-year) first draft of a utility patent.

Patents (design patents) cover the ornamental appearance of a functional item. These also must be filed, reviewed, and ultimately disclosed to the public. These last for 15 years, maintenance fees not required.

Copyrights cover original written material, music, images, movies, and the like. These can last over a lifetime (e.g. lifetime of the author plus 70 years) after initial publication. Registration not initially required, but eventually needed to enforce rights.

Trademarks cover the words, symbols, or packaging associated with certain classes of products and services in commerce.  Registration, disclosure to the public, and review required. These have no lifetime limit, so long as the owner periodically sends in proof of continued use in commerce.

Trade Secrets cover undisclosed commercially useful information not generally known to the public or trade. These can include unpatentable items such as recipes, as well as un-copyrightable items such as lists. No lifetime limit, provided that the secret does not get exposed.

Sometimes it is possible to get better protection by handling the IP under multiple categories. Examples include:

  • Using a non-publication request to keep the IP secret while pursuing a US patent
  • Converting a utility patent drawing to a later design patent
  • Filing user interface IP as a utility patent, design patent, and copyright
  • Filing a distinctive design as both a design patent and a trademark
  • Filing a distinctive image (or fragment of literature) as both a copyright and a trademark

There are some tricky aspects to the multiple category approach as well, these include:

  • Cases where international IP rules are different from US rules
  • Trying to use a provisional patent for a later design patent
  • Shifting copyright (non-functional) vs patent (functional) and design patent (ornamental appearance of functional item) distinctions
  • Competitors using your assertions for one IP category against another IP category

So “mind the gap”, but it pays to think broadly and strategically here.

Trade Secrets

secrets
“Sshh” by Deborah Azzopradi

Consider trade secrets, especially when your commercially important secrets are unsuitable for patent or copyright protection.

Consider the formula for Coca-Cola and its “natural flavorings”, which dates back over 100 years.  Even if the formula could have been patented (unlikely), the patent would be long expired.  The formula might not be even eligible for copyright since it is a list.  In any event, a copyright by now would be both expired and useless since a copyright is only for the printed words.  However as a closely guarded trade secret, the formula remains valuable (the trademark, of course, is almost priceless).

In addition to recipes, trade secrets can include production methods, marketing methods, computer software, and the like. Pretty much any information that gives a business competitive advantage, and is not generally known, is a potential trade secret.

Trade secret protection is very narrow – unless you can prove to a court that you carefully guarded the secret, and someone with access to the secret then misappropriated the secret, you are out of luck. If someone figures out the secret by other means (e.g. reverse engineering), there is no protection, even for Coca-Cola.

However if you can convince the court that trade secret theft occurred, you can request injunctions (e.g. block disclosure), damages (your economic harm caused by the theft), and possibly even seizure of materials and/or attorney fees.

Until recently, trade secrets were only handled at the state level.  However in May 2016, the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (DTSA) was signed into law.  Trade secret theft can now be handled in either state or federal court. Trade secret theft can now be charged under both civil and even criminal law.

So if you are doing a startup, think about which of your non-commonly known information gives you a competitive edge. Where appropriate, apply for patents and trademarks, and register copyrights to prove copyright ownership.  For the rest, although some disclosure may be required for marketing and fund-raising, try to limit this disclosure, and take positive steps (e.g. restriction of access, nondisclosure agreements) to preserve not-generally-known information that is competitively important.

Startup IP due diligence

Maat
Maat – Egyptian goddess of truth

Startup investors know that they are mostly investing in just your IP.  So get your IP ownership situation under control before due diligence starts.

What does a startup investor get for his money? Startup companies are really just a bundle of information (usually ideas), people (founders, contractors, consultants), and things (tangible property, cash). A startup’s “things” will usually have minimal value. The people can walk out the door at any minute. So all that an investor may actually get for his money is some sort of ownership option in the information – the startup’s intellectual property (IP).  Prudent startup investors thus often conduct a fair amount of due diligence on this “IP”.

A startup’s IP can be viewed as being a mixture of alleged inventions (e.g. actual or potential patents), alleged copyrights, alleged trademarks, and alleged trade secrets.  At least some of this information may still only exist in the minds of the founders, contractors, and consultants. What is potentially real here, and what is not?

Sophisticated investors also know that according to our IP laws, unless actions are taken to protect the IP, the IP may either still belong to the individual that created it; or it may have become public domain.  Investors also know that startups often don’t fully understand IP law.  Has that intriguing startup already accidentally lost its key IP?  Was it missing essential IP to begin with?  This is why investors want IP due diligence studies.

Some ways that IP can be missing or lost include failure to obtain written IP assignment contracts, inadvertently placing IP into the public domain, and reliance on IP owned by someone else.

Failure to obtain written IP assignment contracts: IP assignment agreements should be obtained from anyone who has materially contributed to the company’s IP. Don’t assume that just because you paid for something, your company owns that IP — you often don’t. Try to do these IP assignments up front, because the longer you wait, the more leverage the other party has. For example, they could make unreasonable demands, or deny assignment altogether.

Inadvertently placing IP in the public domain: For patents, assume that anything you publish before a patent application is filed can be used against you, and be careful to update your patent filings as your technology advances. For trade secrets (i.e. important, not-generally known information which is often not patentable), take active steps to restrict access, require confidentiality agreements, and of course never publish this at all.

Reliance on IP owned by someone else: For patents, consider prior art searches to reduce the chances that you are infringing on other patents. Make sure you have listed the right inventors on any patent applications. For copyrights, check the status of your software licenses, and that you and your contractors are not copying other work. Avoid using names that might confuse customers from related companies, since this may cause trademark problems. For trade secrets, stay away from inside knowledge (not generally known in your field) that you or your contractors may have obtained from other companies.

Remember that from an IP due diligence perspective, if you can’t prove you did things right, the assumption will probably be that you didn’t.  So keep your documentation on file.

Non-disclosure agreements (NDA)

Confidential
Confidential information

Non-disclosure agreements (NDA) can help preserve business trade secrets and other confidential information, but don’t expect your attorney to sign one.

Businesses often use non-disclosure agreements with their contractors, employees, product evaluators, and site visitors, as well as with other businesses such as suppliers, customers, potential partners, and the like.  These agreements are often required to establish diligence in preserving trade secrets.  If breached, such agreements may also be used, along with other suitable evidence, in subsequent legal action in state or federal court.

Although in some states, non-disclosure agreements are sometimes used as a backdoor form of a non-compete agreement (e.g. attempting to restrict an ex-employee’s employment elsewhere), this is not a universal practice. California, for example, disallows this sort of thing.

NDA typically include various clauses establishing:

  • Who is disclosing the information, and who is the recipient
  • The boundaries of the confidential information – what is and is not covered
  • Confidentiality obligations
  • When and/or how the agreement ends
  • Other legal provisions (beyond the scope of this blog)

Generally, NDA have carve-outs for publically available information and terminate either when information subsequently becomes available to others through no-fault of the recipient, or after a pre-negotiated number of years.

NDA can be particularly useful when you are working on an invention, but either have not filed a patent application yet, or else are continuing to work on improvements to the invention.  Here, if you want to work with vendors or contractors to produce components of the invention, NDA (and other IP rights agreements) can be important.

Attorneys, including myself, usually refuse to sign NDA.  Why is this?  The reason is that attorneys are already subject to strict state (and federal) attorney-client rules and regulations that require them to keep client (and potential client) secrets. In essence, by agreeing to talk to you, the attorney has already agreed to a standardized, legally enforced, type of attorney-client “NDA”.

Consider what would happen if this were not the case.  Clients would be afraid to even ask an attorney about their particular problems. Attorneys would be signing hundreds of NDA each year, each with different terms. The legal system would grind to a halt.

Professional investors (VC, Angels) usually also refuse to sign NDA.  Here, there is no duty of confidentiality.  However, the finance people control the money, see a lot of ideas they don’t fund, and usually don’t want any constraints on their future investments. This is where it is good to have your patent applications filed in advance.