How to protect your intellectual property

Any written material, photograph or musical piece that a company creates is considered copyrighted material. And for many businesses, protecting...

By Isaac Bonnell

In school we were taught not to copy other people’s homework — that’s cheating. In the working world, copying other people’s work and claiming it as your own is still cheating, but with a longer name: copyright infringement.

Any written material, photograph, map or musical piece that a company creates is considered copyrighted material, meaning that company owns the rights to that piece of work. For many businesses, protecting that material is a vital part of staying competitive in a growing global marketplace.

So when Charlotte Wells, marketing manager for Ferndale-based rope manufacturer Samson, found that a competitor in Singapore was using educational material Samson produced, she was a bit flustered.

“It was word-for-word our creative work and our pictures of our products,” Wells said, referring to sections of the competitor’s catalog.

Samson spends a lot of time and energy creating materials to inform customers about proper rope-handling skills and rope inspections, Wells said. This level of customer service is part of what the company calls the “Samson Advantage” and the company prides itself in having some of the best training and expertise in the industry.

Having a competitor use Samson’s educational material in a catalog “implies that they came up with this on their own,” Wells said.

So Samson contacted the offending company and sent them a cease and desist letter ordering them to stop using Samson’s copyrighted material. The two parties were able to settle the dispute without going to court, but the issue has led Samson to reevaluate its strategy of dealing with copyright infringement.

“What we’re looking into now is taking a more proactive approach to protecting our copyright,” Wells said. “We have always put a copyright statement on our material, but we haven’t filed a copyright registration with the Library of Congress.”

The company deals with one to two cases of copyright infringement each year, Wells said. Most cases are unintentional and involve distributors more than competitors — but it’s still copyright infringement.

“It’s becoming more rampant, especially as we become more international,” she said.

Copyright vs. trademark

Not all intellectual property is the same, nor are they given the same rights. Copyright applies to original works of authorship and applies to material that is published, such as brochures or films.

“It’s any kind of expression that you can embody in tangible form,” said Mike Schacht, a Bellingham-based intellectual property attorney.

A trademark is more specific: It is the symbol or combination of words and images used to distinguish a business or entity from others. Trademarks embody the reputation of a company and also give consumers an assurance of quality.

“Coca-Cola is a trademark. The shape of a coke bottle is trademarked,” Schacht said. “The common thing among all these expressions of trademarks is that whatever it is embodies the goodwill of the company. Not only does it protect the company, but it also protects the public.”

Here in the United States, the first trademarks were registered in 1870, though few are still in use. Not so coincidentally, the oldest active trademark in the country belongs to Samson. The logo of a man opening the mouth of a lion, much like the biblical strongman Samson, has been used by the company since 1884.

“A trademark can last forever as long as you continue to renew it every 10 years,” Schacht said. “You develop trademark rights based on use in commerce. As long as you continue using it, it will go on forever, whereas copyright will eventually expire.”

Though you can obtain trademark rights by simply using a logo on your product, it is always wise to do your research to make sure no other company is using a similar logo and then register the trademark with the federal patent and trademark office, Schacht said.

Basically, the easiest way to avoid infringement issues is to be original with your work from the beginning.

“With trademarks, do the due diligence to make sure the mark is clean. Nobody likes to change their trademark once they’ve started using it,” Schacht said. “A clean trademark provides two things: You are less likely to infringe on another trademark, and it allows you to enforce your trademark rights against someone trying to use your trademark.”

For copyrighted material, copyright protection is automatic. Any published material inherently has legal rights and you don’t have to put the copyright symbol (©) on it, Schacht said. Still, it is a good idea to establish your copyright by registering it, which can cost upward of $2,000.

Stopping plagiarism

Establishing a trademark or copyright doesn’t mean the battle is over, though.

“People who want to plagiarize your material will,” she said. “But there are things you can do to slow down the less-industrious thief.”

Since copyright covers so many forms of media, each form has its own tricks for stopping plagiarism. You can put watermarks on photos. You can lock PDFs with sensitive information. But even those are not foolproof.

The best way to protect your copyright and trademark is to be vigilant about your materials and know your rights, Wells said.

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