The Patent and Copyright Process - Innovator Week


The U.S. and many other nations continue to face stagnant economies and limited job opportunities, as evidenced in part by the OWS movement and global protests. Though a national unemployment rate of 8.5% paints a dismal picture, the landscape provides fertile ground for the growth of entrepreneurship. In 2009, U.S. entrepreneurship rose to its highest rate in 14 years, and global entrepreneurship continues to rise today with nearly 400 million active entrepreneurs around the world. Typically considered a risky venture, self-employment can be a lucrative route for those job seekers who have nothing short of an indomitable sense of perseverance.

So what’s someone to do with a brilliant new idea? The best first step to take is making sure your idea is actually new (and brilliant). It’s advised to first pitch it to your coworkers, family, and friends before seriously pursuing the idea. For example, if your idea is for an office chair that mimics the gyrating movement of a hula dance to exercise your abs and buns, dump the idea. (Because it already exists.) Doing research is essential in finding out if your idea has already been implemented by someone else. If you’ve decided that your idea is original and feasible, you should make sure you have the starting capital to fund it before jumping into your new venture. Risk is unavoidable when it comes to self-employment, but it can definitely be mitigated by having solid financial resources.

Okay, now you have a novel, attractive idea that is decidedly NOT the Hawaii Chair. Should you protect your new moneymaker through official copyrights? That depends on the nature of your project; you can’t actually protect the idea itself, but only its physical realization. There is also a difference between copyrights, patents, and trademarks, so you’ll need to decide which one is applicable to your idea.

Copyright is a form of intellectual property law, which we’re all especially familiar with thanks to SOPA and PIPA. It’s important now more than ever to ensure you aren’t infringing on someone else’s material, and getting a copyright is a good way to make the originality of your work known. Copyright applies to literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as books, films, songs, or computer software. Original works like writing, art, or photography that appear on your website can also be protected by copyright. Works don’t have to be published to be copyrighted, either.

Technically, an original work is given automatic copyright protection as soon as it is created in a tangible, perceptible form. If you wrote an epic love poem to the person you’re stalking, you don’t necessarily need to get legal copyright protection (though a different kind of legal protection may soon be pursued against you). You might be wondering why you would need to get a copyright then, if protection is automatic. The U.S. Copyright Office recommends registration in order to have the fact of copyright on the public record, and so you can receive a certificate. Should any legal problems arise concerning copyright infringement, registered works can be eligible for statutory damages and attorney fees. Going about getting a copyright is fairly simple; you send an application either electronically or by mail, attach a filing fee ($35 for online registration), and wait between three to ten months for processing. If your application meets the requirements of Copyright law, you will receive your certificate in the mail, and your registration will be updated into the public record.

If you’ve discovered something or created a new invention, then a patent is what you’re looking for. Like copyrights, patents cannot be applied to mere ideas, but only their physical/perceptible implementations. Your first step should be researching your invention to see if someone’s beaten you to the patent punch. After that you simply need to figure out if you need a utility patent (machines, articles of manufacture, composition of matter, useful process) or design patent (visual ornaments to a product), and fill out applications much like in the copyright process. However, the U.S. Patent Office strongly recommends to file with a registered attorney or agent, so that’s a monetary factor to keep in mind.

Finally, a trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, and designs which identify a particular brand of goods. If you reach for your nearest massively produced object, chances are there is a small “TM” or encircled R symbol after the brand name, which identify a trademark and federal registration, respectively. You may use the “TM” symbol even if you haven’t officially registered for with the Trademark Office (since, like copyrights, trademark registration is not required), but the R symbol is reserved for those who have filed and been passed for rights.

To see what a practical application of entrepreneurship looks like, BTR spoke with recent Columbia University graduate Brian Foo, an artist and web developer who has been self-employed for two years.

One of his websites, Project Label, produces “people-powered company nutrition labels”, where a  democratic approach is used to assess a company’s health, social, and environmental impacts. His company Giveloop, which was sold last year, provides a way for organizations to be more transparent when raising donations online, where donors can see exactly where their money is going. Brian is currently producing online tools with the goal of making it easier for artists to earn a living.

When asked what inspired him to create his own businesses, Brian replied that most of his ideas were produced by frustration with the status quo. Giveloop was the result of his reluctance to donate to organizations that weren’t clear about how money would be used. By wondering about how a given model could be improved, a new company was born. Copyrights and patents were not a priority for Brian’s projects, as he explained that most internet-based ideas are difficult and expensive to patent compared to the process for patenting physical products. Using a simple unregistered trademark next to the name, logo, and branding was sufficient for the initial stages of his projects.

While Brian misses the dependable paycheck, health insurance, and paid vacations of the corporate world, he appreciates not having a fixed schedule, office bureaucracy, and arbitrary deadlines. When asked if there was anything he knows now about starting a business that he wished he had known when he first started, he initially felt he should do everything by himself, but he has now learned the importance of picking a good co-founder, which lightens the workload and increases morale by having someone who’s equally invested in an idea. His last words of advice to anyone thinking of entrepreneurship is to make sure your passion extends beyond acquisition of wealth: “The biggest test of a start-up company comes when it’s in the gutter and low on cash- and it’s really the belief in the idea that keeps it going. And most successful companies experience this dip before they make it big.”

Delving into entrepreneurship clearly requires a solid sense of your personal goals, and is not for the light of spirit. Doing lots of research and finding like-minded people seems to be the best bet for venturing into your new startup, and it doesn’t hurt to protect your idea with copyrights and patents, especially if you’ve invented something new. Even with a great idea, markets are subject to swift changes, and there are no guarantees. Yet, the adage still holds that nothing ventured results in nothing gained, and taking big risks can produce amazing results. Unless you’re the inventor of the Hawaii Chair. This cannot be stressed enough.