From Day One, a start-up company needs to protect its technology and its branding, and to budget for that protection. Some suggested steps follow, many of which require little or no direct, out-of-pocket expense.
1. Protect “the secret sauce.” Mark secret information as confidential, limit access to it, and enter into confidentiality agreements before sharing it.
2. File a provisional patent application on any unique product, method, composition or ornamental design that cannot be protected as a secret.
3. Choose a unique trade name and trademark. A trade name is the company’s “nickname” or “doing business as” name. A trademark is part of the company’s “brand,” the word or logo placed on products or services.
4. Buy the domain names that cover the trade name and trademark. Also register the name and mark on social media sites.
5. Place “TM” next to the trademark. This lets others know it is a trademark.
6. Apply for federal registration of the “flagship” trademark. Once federal registration is obtained, the circle R symbol, ®, can be used.
7. Give notice of copyright. Software code, web pages, photographs, and marketing literature can be marked with a copyright notice as soon as they are created.
8. Federally register creative material that is most likely to be copied. Registration must occur within three months of publication or within one month of learning of infringement, whichever is earliest.
9. Execute work-made-for-hire agreements. When hiring third parties to design, invent or create, make certain that the start-up company solely and exclusively owns all intellectual property rights.
10. Make certain employment agreements are clear about ownership. Similar to the work-made-for-hire agreement, employment agreements should clearly state that the employee is being hired to invent or create and that inventions or expressions are owned solely and exclusively by the company.