The internet and social networking sites available today have created platforms for small businesses and new businesses to promote their brand and products or services to a wide audience. There are, however, risks that come with the transparency that the Internet and social networking sites naturally encourage. Businesses, and their employees, must be aware of these potential risks and make efforts to protect their valuable ideas online.
Trademarks, Copyrights, Patents, and Trade secrets
There are four options people often consider to protect their ideas: trademarks, copyrights, patents, and trade secrets.
- A trademark is used for a name, logo, or symbol when it is used for the purpose of advertising or promotion of service. Take the Nike symbol.
- A copyright protects the expression of ideas, like the copyright of a book or the copyright of content on a website.
- A patent is another option for protecting ideas. Tangible creations are the only things that are able to be patented. Patents exclude others from making, selling, or using your item (usually an invention) and give you the right to sue if there is infringement upon your patent. Patents are definitely beneficial, but are also expensive and time-consuming to obtain.
- A trade secret is the fourth way many people protect their ideas. If an idea relates to a process or technique that brings economic benefit or competitive advantage but is not known to the public, you have yourself a trade secret. For example, a secret family recipe that makes your pasta sauce more enjoyable than any other brand on the shelf. Trade secrets can have an indefinite life…as long as they are kept secret.
Custom Creative recommends that companies take advantage of any of these tactics that are applicable to protecting your unique ideas, processes, and content. Further information on registering or applying for trademarks, copyrights, patents, and trade secrets can easily be found online.
Because ideas cannot be protected by intellectual property law, precautions should be taken to prevent your ideas from being discovered and stolen. As PC World has mentioned, today’s world is social and open, yet private. This means that businesses must be careful to not share all or too much information about products and ideas. If a business is using social media, this means having a watchful eye over what is posted and customizing privacy settings on each social media site to which they belong.
Can You Recover Attorneys’ Fees for an Infringement Case in State Court?
If your mark is being used in one state only, your infringement suit will most likely be brought in state court, and the laws of your state will determine how attorneys’ fees will be paid. In most states, the courts will not require the loser of a lawsuit to pay the winner’s attorneys’ fees. Stated bluntly, even if you win, you’ll have to pay your own lawyer and risk ending up in the poorhouse.
However, in a few jurisdictions, such as Colorado, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Puerto Rico, the prevailing party is awarded attorneys’ fees.
The Small Business Administration has given some guidelines for protecting the ideas of your company online. They recommend first understanding the terms of service of each social media site or website that you are using. Familiarizing yourself and your employees with these policies may help prevent legal matters and accidental leaks online. The SBA also advises having a plan for how you will monitor and police what people are saying about your company. This is a way to not only know the buzz around your company, but also to know if there is any type of infringement or violation happening. Along with this, you should be aware of the difference between fair use and infringement of trademarks or copyrights in order to determine if you have the right to act on an infringement case, or if it was truly something done on accident by the offender. In short, a business must understand policies of the services it is using, what is truly theirs to claim, and how to act if and when infringement does occur.
Many companies with revolutionary ideas have taken steps to protect their ideas which can be attributed to their success. Let’s look at Apple and Adidas. Apple’s policies used to be so private that they were not even released to the public[KB1] . Protecting the ideas behind Apple’s innovative products has been absolutely vital to their success, giving Apple the edge above many other companies in recent years. Idea protection at Apple is based around the two following rules: An employee may have a blog, but there may be no company associations with the blog and posting comments on third party Apple or Mac sites is not allowed (www.prdaily.com). These two rules protect Apple’s products and ideas from being leaked to the public and validate company image by ensuring that whatever is being said about Apple is genuine and unedited by the company.
Adidas is another wonderful example of a company that understands how to properly protect their ideas online. Besides trademarks, copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and understanding intellectual property law, these companies understand another important component: confidentiality. Company policies for internet use are clearly displayed on a webpage dedicated to the media policies for all employees of the Adidas group. On this page, Adidas reminds its employees that although they have a voice, they are not necessarily the spokesperson for the Adidas group, they should have pride in their company, they may share company news (but none that is under a confidentiality agreement), and to be honest without commenting on company legal issues. Besides having trademarks on logos and copyrights on company written works, restricting what information employees are able to comment on and share with others further safeguards ideas and protects against damaging information leaks.
In addition to obtaining the proper legal holds for your company and its information, Custom Creative encourages companies to provide social media training to their employees. At the minimum, you should define who is responsible for company social media accounts and what type of content is appropriate to share. Guidelines should also be established for all employees to follow when discussing company information online and on their personal social networking sites (www.socialmediavoice.com). These procedures protect company ideas and integrity without censoring employee voice. Also, providing regular updates on your company will keep followers and customers interested and prevent the digging and leaks that occur when an audience is left in the dark.