December 08, 2000, 1:50 PM —
IF YOU'RE JUST starting a dot-com company, you may be so focused on getting your
company running that protecting your intellectual property is the last thing you want
deal with. But you postpone such protections at your peril: The last thing you want is
for an employee to walk out the door with your most valuable Web innovation. David
Duckworth, an intellectual property lawyer at Newport Beach, Calif.-based firm Drummond
and Duckworth, says there are proactive legal steps you can take to protect what may be
your most valuable asset.
1. Patent protection
If you have a unique invention (or even a unique way of conducting e-business), you
need to file a patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. During the
patent process, you will need to prove that your invention is novel and non-obvious.
Duckworth says you also will want to make sure that as part of their employment
contract, your employees sign an agreement that anything invented within the scope of
their employment belongs to the company.
2. Trademark protection
The first thing you need to do, Duckworth says, is make sure you aren't using
somebody else's trademark or logo, or something confusingly similar. Then file a
trademark application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which will do a search
of its own to determine the uniqueness, then provide certain remedies for any
infringement. It takes less than a year to get trademark protection. You'll have to
prove you are actively using the trademark during this process.
3. Copyright protection
You can give your Web site copyright protection instantly and easily by writing
copyright, the copyright symbol, and the date at the bottom of your home page.
Duckworth says this will protect all the pages on your site. You also ought to file an
application with the U.S. Copyright Office for protection against unauthorized copying.
If you decide to contract out to a Web designer or software engineer, make sure you
clearly indicate in the hiring contract that you own all the rights to the design or
software they create for you.
4. Trade secrets
Every employee should sign a confidentiality agreement upon hire, even if you don't
think their job will give them access to trade secrets, Duckworth says. You need to
clearly indicate in the agreement that all trade secrets are to be kept confidential,
not only during employment but after the employee leaves.