There’s no patent on the World Wide Web, and for that we can thank Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Had he filed a patent application, we might all be paying to use his invention. Instead, he gave it away. Less altruistic engineers working on innovative ideas might prefer to profit from their labor, in which case they should understand why and how to protect their intellectual property.
Not Just Patents
The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) defines IP as “creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.” This encompasses copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets, as well as actual patents.
The Route to Higher Profits
When there is no difference between products offered for sale, buyers pay the minimum necessary, causing margins to tighten. IP helps companies differentiate their products and charge a higher price, whether those differences are real or simply perceived.
Four Types of IP
Copyright refers to the exclusive right to copy a piece of work. Books, music, and movies are well known recipients of copyright, but so too are engineering works. Designs, drawings, and diagrams are all covered by copyright law. If someone copies work without permission, they are infringing a copyright.
A Trademark is any word, symbol, or device a business uses to uniquely identify itself or its products. The right to a trademark depends on whether confusion would be created by two businesses using the same name. Thus Greenville, MI, could have only one Greenville Pizza Company, but providing pizza parlor only did business in its home town, there’s no reason why it, in Greenville, PA, couldn't use the same name.
Like a copyright, a patent also grants exclusive rights, in this case to use an invention. This allows an inventor to profit from his efforts by giving him a monopoly on those efforts for twenty years. In exchange, he discloses how the invention solves a particular problem.
Sometimes a business or inventor decides against patenting. They may think disclosure will help others find alternative solutions and launch competing products, or they might want to protect an invention for longer than 20 years. In these situations, the alternative is to treat the invention as a Trade Secret.
A Trade Secret is information not generally known, from which an organization can derive economic value. Examples could be a process, a drawing, or a formulation, such as the recipe for Pepsi Cola. Trade Secret protection does not grant exclusivity: it only protects against unauthorized disclosure. So if Coke and Pepsi independently arrived at the same recipe, neither could prevent the other from using it.
A company must take reasonable steps to protect Trade Secrets. Documents should be marked “Confidential," employees should be put on notice of the confidential nature of the information, and access to it should be restricted.
Objectives of IP Law
Copying deters innovation by removing any chance of profiting from the effort involved in creating something new. Innovation is seen as desirable, so IP law emerged to provide protection for the act of intellectual creativity. A patent grants monopoly rights for a fixed period, allowing the inventor to profit from his labor.
Protecting Your IP
Bringing an invention to market usually entails disclosing some or all of its features. That is a problem for inventors who fear their ideas could be stolen. Following the steps outlined below can help ensure their your is well protected.
It’s prudent to seek legal advice, but not every attorney has the specialized knowledge needed. One approach is to go through the website, Lawyers.com. Search for an IP lawyer in your geographic area with the appropriate expertise.
A Nondisclosure Agreement (NDA) warns people against sharing your information. Use it whenever disclosing anything related to your IP. A well-written NDA defines what is being protected and for how long.
In today’s manufacturing industry, and with the ever-increasing speed of communications, the protection of IP for manufacturers and their buyers alike has become paramount in any sourcing situation.
So how does MFG.com protect your IP?
As a buyer, you can require all suppliers downloading your intellectual property to digitally sign the legally binding MFG.com NDA, or an NDA of your own. This gives you complete control over which shops can view your drawings.
- Our Supplier Discovery Tool allows active buyers sourcing in our open marketplace to securely view certifications, past ratings, and other analytics important when considering which suppliers can quote on your sensitive IP components.
- We are SOC2 compliant, a must for any company protecting IP. This provides you with an additional level of security.
- MFG.com safe-guards all engineering IP for companies such as NASA, General Electric, GM, and many others.
- We provide you access to a robust tracking system that captures all supplier downloads of your IP, with the ability to export the information at any time.
- We are regularly audited by our Enterprise Team to stay ahead of IP issues, security technologies, and current news.
If you are interested in exploring how to protect your company’s intellectual property, we would like to invite you to an orientation that requires only 15 minutes of your time. Click here to schedule and we will have a Sourcing Specialist contact you within 24 business hours.
Consider International Patents
A patent is only valid where granted. This means that even if you protect your invention within the United States, a European competitor can produce a copy, unless you also obtain patent protection in Europe. However, the European competitor will not be able to sell his infringing product in the U.S. But remember, patent applications are expensive, so carefully consider the extent of overseas coverage necessary.
Engineers deal with many forms of IP and you need to understand why and how to protect it. This article provides an overview, but you may want to seek professional advice depending on the level of protection desired.