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Intellectual Property.

Intellectual Property, or IP for short, refers to the assets you and your business have that may not be tangible. Innovations, designs, names, and even workflows can qualify. Just like real estate or chattel (personal property, such as books and furniture), intellectual property can be bought and sold, borrowed, or, if not properly protected, even stolen. Many small businesses don't really understand the impact that being well protected can make. As your business grows, patents, copyrights, and trademarks will become more and more valuable. It's easy to get caught up and excited in innovation at the start and wind up regretting it later.

Take a look at any just about any publicly traded business's balance sheet and you'll find "Intangible Assets" (read, intellectual property). And the value might surprise you. As an example, Coca-Cola (listed on the NYSE as KO) valued theirs at just over $15 billion at the end of 2012. That's a lot of money to risk. Google (listed on NASDAQ as GOOG) recently discovered just how important patents are. From 2009 to 2012, the value of their intangible assets increased almost ten-fold, primarily as a result of their investments in patents.

So what does it take to protect your intellectual property? Patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets are all legally enforceable means to protecting one's IP. In most cases, you must take actions to prevent competitors from using it. In certain cases, even talking about an innovation can lead to the loss of certain rights.

Patents

Patents protect inventors. Patents are meant "to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States." The idea is that inventors are granted that protection in return for sharing how to practice their invention with the world.

It is important that inventors know their obligations during the whole process to understand how to maintain possession of their intellectual property and to leave themselves open to receive full protection.

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Copyrights

Copyrights protect artists and cover their artwork, be that images, books, sculptures, music, or any other sort of original works of authorship. Copyrights exist automatically in all artwork when it is created, but gain extra protection (and by consequence may become more valuable) through registration with the United States Copyright Office.

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Trademarks

Trademarks protect the public, by identifying the source of a good or service. They ensure that a brand is controlled by only one entity. Registering a trademark can help a business owner build a brand by ensuring consistent use of it. When choosing a brand or business name, it is important for a founder to ensure that that name has not already been trademarked, both to avoid infringing and to allow for the business having that protection. Simply registering a business name and trademark does not ensure a trademark's availability.

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Trade Secrets

Trade secrets are used to protect business workflows, inventions, and assets from ever becoming available to competitors. Although having a trade secret does not limit others from reproducing your item directly, the idea is that, when paired with something that cannot be reverse-engineered, that item will be solely yours. In the event of a rogue employee sharing your trade secret, legal action can be taken, although the damage would likely have already been done to your business. Examples of typical trade secrets might be customers lists or manufacturing processes. Possibly the most famous trade secret of all time is the formula for Coca-Cola.

By having a trade secret, it is important to recognize the risk, and long-term factors that might inhibit success. For example, in the event of a trade secret becoming publicly known (through uninvited employee disclosure or reverse-engineering by a third party), patentability might be affected. Following the philosophy of patents, the USPTO tends to look down upon keeping secrets of this nature.

Trade secrets have the advantage of being able to last forever, but they are often difficult to enforce, especially in larger organizations.