BOUNTIFUL — Entrepreneurs can be caught behind a rock and a hard place.
They want to share news of their innovation, but also need to be careful the concept isn’t stolen and reproduced by someone else.
That was the advise from Michael Langer, an attorney with the law firm of Michael, Best & Friedrich.
“Say you have a new oak door product, a widget, any type of product you’re making and want to sell on the market,” he said.
There are several ways to protect the function of the product, the way it looks, even protecting the identity of where it’s produced and the quality a consumer can expect, Langer said.
“All of these forms of protection are grounded in intellectual property laws in the U.S.,” he said. They protect the way things function, with trademarks used to protect the source of service.
Copyrights, meanwhile, are a tool to protect expression of an idea, and sometimes for a good, such as software, Langer explained. That could include protecting software, a code, which is the expression of the way software was created.
“A copyright wouldn’t necessarily protect the way it (product) looks, but generally would protect the code,” he said.
Patents protect the function of a product, or the particular way a method is performed. For example, in manufacturing it could mean protecting the way something is made, Langer said.
“People often are confused about the different kinds of intellectual property unless they’ve been in the game for a while and know how to utilize these different forms of protection to protect their business,” he said.
Anyone starting a small business or working on a new innovation should start by calling a lawyer, Langer emphasized.
A lawyer can help them navigate through the system, which is very complicated, and often costly. In addition, they may need a different kind of protection depending on the kind of business they’re in.
“ Other times it may be absolutely critical (to retain an attorney or at least consult with one),” he said.
That said, there have been a lot of changes to patent law over the last few years. “It’s much harder, more expensive,” Langer said. “Unfortunately, the patent system is (now) slanted to those who have a lot of resources already,” he said, coming largely as a result of lobbying, something he said is hardly surprising.
A new bicycle derailer would involve much less cost than a more complicated innovation, he said.
Even so, an investment of $6,000 to $10,000 is probably needed to file a permit application.
“You need to convince the Patent Office that you should get the patent. That could be several years, plus other fees. There’s no guarantee you can get the patent,” Langer said. “It’s tricky. You’re taking a bet, don’t know if you will get it and at major expense.”
There are ways to improve those chances, but that’s not cheap either, he said. If looking beyond a U.S. patent, “expenses explode into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Innovators also need to consider how they want to grow their business – if they want to contain it to a local market or have worldwide hopes, he said.
At all costs, don’t get involved with a firm that advertises on TV and promises to buy and market your invention, Langer said.