If you ever have a halfway good idea, it’s going to get stolen by someone. Your competition, big box retailers or even well-meaning fans will take and use your idea for their own benefit at some point in time.
This is not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’ Yep, even (maybe especially) as an attorney, my ideas are stolen by others in my industry.
So if it’s going to happen anyway, why should you focus on protecting your ideas?
Well, for obvious reasons, it sucks to get your hard work stolen. It is frustrating, anger-inducing and flat out difficult to face no matter what. But nonetheless, you work hard to brainstorm and execute your ideas, and you should get to reap the rewards—all the rewards.
In the United States, we have five kinds of intellectual property that may be used to protect your ideas from copycats:
Copyrights protect original works of authorship, including painting/design/photography.
Cost: $35 for single works; $55 for collections + legal fees if you have an attorney search or file for you, but, most of the time, you can do this yourself.
Trademarks are logos, words or designs that identify the source of a product or service.
Cost: Up to $325 per class of goods or services + legal search and application fees, typically around $500-$1,000 extra depending on how experienced your attorney is. TIP: This is not the place to scrimp on fees! Just do it right once and be done with it.
Patents give you the right to exclude others from making, using or selling an invention.
Cost: A friggen’ lot. Searches (just the search, yes…) start around $5,000, plus your attorney has to draft the application and file it. Like trademarks, if you do this on your own, you will almost certainly regret it later and end up spending more money to get it done correctly.
Trade Dress protects the design of packaging or restaurant elements (think: the Waffle House awnings) from being copied in bad faith. They can be registered with the USPTO like a trademark.
Trade Secrets are any processes, systems, methods or information you use to produce your products or services, and it would be financially harmful to your company if these secrets were to become public. These are not registered anywhere, and are protected by your discretion and lots of solid NDAs and confidentiality agreements.
While it may seem like the above categories of intellectual property are quite robust, in reality, they only truly benefit the creative entrepreneur who gets out there and sells stuff, or at least gets their ideas committed to some sort of product.
Even then, only the actual products or services that are sold will be considered the property that is protected, so others could take your idea, mix it all up, put different colors and graphics onto it, and sell it as their own with absolutely zero consequence.
This is because, as much as it sucks, you can’t stop someone from taking most of the ideas we have in our business. If you use calligraphy, others are still allowed to use calligraphy. If you take a photo in a certain way, others can copy your photography style. If you were the first wedding planner to ever use burlap…well, clearly, that idea was not going to be protected.
Copyright law only protects your exact expression of the idea—so if someone copies your workbook word for word but changes the graphics, you probably have a good case for an infringement on your hands.
If someone starts using your logo on their blog, again, a great case for infringement.
If you have a horse in your logo and someone else copies it, but has a totally different rendering of the horse with a different font and name, well, a court will probably laugh at you if you try to sue for copyright or trademark infringement.
I get asked this question all the time, so I’ve put together a strategy for you:
Be the innovator! Your competition will constantly be behind you, trying to keep up by adapting to your new style or design. Innovation is key to staying ahead of copycats, because no matter how hard they try, they will never ever be the first.
Imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery. If someone is imitating you, it’s because you have a good idea, because people don’t waste their resources on bad ones.
Understand that your competition actually helps you.Even when they’re out there doing their own marketing, if they’re in your niche, they’re actually marketing for you too. When my competition markets themselves, it gets others thinking about attorneys and starting to think about their options. Sometimes, this brings my competitor’s leads to me instead.
Have the most bomb-diggity client or customer experience the world has ever seen. Despite watching copycats pop that take my content, my client base has grown by leaps and bounds because I am constantly looking to improve the experience of everyone who trusts me with their time, business and money.
Go for the hand... one of the things that we all want to do is send someone a really nasty cease and desist letter as soon as we see them copying us. What’s much more effective, but very hard to do, is to take the person by the hand (metaphorically speaking) and show them that you not only know about their ‘influenced’ fan material, but also that it’s not cool.
This is most effectively accomplished if it’s done in the nicest, sweetest way possible that is 0% passive aggressive. And that is not easy.
Then go for the jugular! If you’ve seen someone copying your work, it’s time to get an attorney involved to have a little chat with them to further explain your rights to you, draft up a plan of action and actually execute that plan going forward.
While an attorney may initially seem like an expensive investment, remember, the little bits of your marketplace that are getting eaten away by these copycats are taking the money out of your bank account for the things that matter to YOU.
If you're planning to hire an employee or engage in a joint venture, click here for an air-tight Non-Disclosure Agreement to keep your ideas safe.
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