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You've invented the next big thing. How do you protect it? Free advice from the U.S. Patent Office.
June 29, 2016

“Intellectual property rights,” or IPR, sounds complicated but really it’s simple: If you create something new and useful — an invention, an artistic work, even a business method — you should have exclusive rights to profit from it, at least for a while.

The U.S. Constitution recognizes the importance of IPR. (“The Congress shall have power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries …”)

In 1790, Congress established standards for the granting of patents, and authorized the secretaries of State and War and the Attorney General to grant them. Today patents (covering inventions), copyrights (for literary and artistic works) and trademarks (for logos and items that define a brand) are granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

While IPR standards and enforcement vary by country, intellectual property rights, however defined, are crucial for entrepreneurs, no matter how large or small their business. As Abraham Lincoln once explained, “The Patent System added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”

Advice from an expert

In advance of the White House’s June 22–24 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Silicon Valley, California, Russell Slifer, deputy director of the Patent and Trademark Office, fielded questions from entrepreneurs in Nigeria, Botswana, Brazil and elsewhere.

“Almost every business has intellectual property,” Slifer said. “They may not recognize it [but] it needs to be thought of by every entrepreneur, every artist, anybody building a business.”

USPTO offers tools to help entrepreneurs and inventors understand the patent process. It also provides extensive training for judges, examiners and policymakers seeking to improve their countries’ IPR protections.

Slifer acknowledged that getting a patent can be expensive. He advised entrepreneurs to assess clearly the nature of their intellectual property and whether they it they need legal protection to prevent someone from copying it.

One benefit: A patent can help an entrepreneur attract venture capital. Even if a startup fails, Slifer noted, the entrepreneur may be able to sell the patent.

An entrepreneur in Brazil asked how U.S. trademarks help products from outside the United States.

Slifer explained that each country sets its own laws for protecting intellectual property rights, so U.S. patents don’t apply elsewhere. But if a Brazilian entrepreneur wants to “make sure that their product being sold in the U.S. is protected,” then applying for trademarks under U.S. law is “a very strong way for them to protect” their intellectual property rights.

A forum participant in Gaborone, Botswana, asked what an entrepreneur should do after securing a patent or trademark.

“I wish I could say that as soon as you obtain protection for intellectual property, that the world opens up and there’s no competition,” he said. But it doesn’t “mean your product is going to be accepted on the market.”

Still, studies have shown patents and trademarks “help startups create jobs, grow markets and eventually succeed,” Slifer said.

The United States and the World Intellectual Property Organization can help countries improve protections, but in the end there needs to be collaboration by those “working and doing business in a country, speaking to their representatives when the system isn’t working right,” he said.

Jean Bonilla, director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Intellectual Property Enforcement, moderated the forum.

Read this article in Spanish and Portuguese.