Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 3:54 PM on Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Intellectual property: take stock, protect what's valuable

Point of View

By Michael Haines

"Everything that can be invented, has been invented," so commented the commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office in 1899.

In retrospect, this has to be one of modern era's all-time understatements. One hundred years on, patent and trademark filings with the United States Patent Office number in the hundreds of thousands per year. But inventions and trademarks are just two, albeit major, groups of assets that fall under a grouping called "intellectual property," commonly called IP.

Simply, IP can be defined as any original work or invention to which you have the rights. In all of its forms, it can represent significant value to the IP owner, whether it be an individual or a business. So, as a business owner, while you are working through those outstanding business issues rolled over from last year, don't forget to re-evaluate this potential important asset.

You are not alone if you are one of the many who have little appreciation of IP as an asset. Others have limited knowledge of intellectual property, are not sure what this intellectual property thing is all about, or know little of how it impacts their business. This is a common problem among small business owners.

As today's fast-paced business world changes at the speed of cyberspace, it's sometimes difficult to take stock and appreciate this intangible piece of your balance sheet. Compounding the problem is the accelerating speed of commerce as it reaches out to the seven billion or so people on this planet.

Appreciating it is one thing. Protecting it and leveraging it to your benefit is even less understood.

Laws introduced and implemented to protect an owner's intellectual property rights, too, are changing as they try to keep up. And, new interpretations of current laws make things you thought you knew about inventions, copyright, trade secrets and trademarks obsolete.

Recent federal legislation, for example, passed into law the "America Invents Act" to bring U.S. patent law more into line with international law by September of this year. These changes to patent law will have huge future impacts on certain intellectual property assets of small business owners. The IP owner will also incur higher costs and greater competition as this new federal patent protection legislation takes effect.

Protecting and profiting from inventions to keep your company viable has to be a key goal regardless of the size or type of business. Should you patent the invention or go the trade secret route? But, what about your other IP, such as protecting your business name? And, the web-url you so painfully sought and claimed? Are you violating the legal rights of others through the sloppy use of search engine "key words" and advertising copy? If you use your family name as your company name, what claims do you have if your long lost cousin starts a similar business using the same family name? Music, literature, visual and the performing arts ... intellectual property is infinitely woven through each day of our working and recreational lives.

Interestingly, most of us have a good appreciation for, and understand, physical property... your home, motor vehicle, snowmachine, your boat. You also appreciate their value and take great care to protect them. Would anyone really purchase a $200,000 house without full title? How about a car?

You may even make a dollar or two from the sale of your house. And, even though you may not profit directly from the resale of your car, you try to protect it to insure maximum return on your original investment.

If you take so much interest and care in your physical property, why not expend the same energy and time protecting and profiting from your intellectual property?

It's not too late. As you work through your new year's catch-up list, it's important to complete an IP assessment.

First, take an IP inventory: What do you have? Second, value your IP: What's it worth? Third, protect the IP that has value. Many business owners and individuals reverse the "value" and "protect" propositions, and expend significant dollars on legal expenses before realizing their IP has little or no value.

Take stock. Decide which has value. Approach it from a business perspective first. Then protect it legally.

Want to know more? The United States Patent and Trademark Office has a very informative website at www.uspto.gov and Homer's Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College/UAA has scheduled an IP workshop titled "Protecting and Profiting from your Intellectual Property" starting Feb. 7. Advanced registration is required. Obtain more information from KBC's website www.kpc.alaska.edu/KBC.

The more informed, the better prepared.

Michael Haines is a Homer-based independent consultant. He can be reached at alaskaentrepreneur@yahoo.com.