How Do I Protect My Business and Intellectual Property?

Help! My e-biz has been up and running for a while, but I recently noticed a new e-commerce site with a name and layout similar to mine. And it sells designs that are nearly identical to my handcrafted products. Do I have any recourse? How do I protect my business name and creations in the future?

Question:

While the Web is a wonderful way to broaden exposure for your home business, you put yourself at risk of intellectual property theft. Intellectual property is the term used to refer to the creative concepts, products and designs that make your enterprise special.

While you can't completely prevent unscrupulous use, there are measures you can take to guard your property and curtail infringements:

Get creative and distinctive. You can begin protecting your business from the moment you name it. Choose a name that's catchy and conveys your business mission, but also research the moniker to ensure it doesn't look or sound like too many others on the Web.

When you're thinking of domain names for your business, do a preliminary trademark search at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. If it hasn't been trademarked, register as many forms of the domain name as you can afford at domain registration sites.

TIP:Register misspelled versions of your domain names so that there's no chance of another business having a "confusingly similar" Web address.

Consider trademarking.Though pricey, trademarks are becoming increasingly important in the Internet age. A trademark will prevent others from using your business or product names for a similar purpose in U.S. commerce. Any name, logo, symbol or slogan used to market a product or service can be trademarked, as long as it is "distinctive," rather than merely "descriptive." (For example, Mompreneurs® is unique and distinctive, while "work-at-home mom" is merely descriptive.)

If you have a unique business name that hasn't already been trademarked by someone else and you plan to offer your services or products outside of your home state, you should strongly consider filing for a federal trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Registration costs $325 for each class of services you register in, and takes about two years to become final. Trademarks give you the power to litigate against trademark infringement in court. It also gives you access to the domain dispute resolution procedure established by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), in the event that someone has registered a domain name that you have trademarked.

Display copyright notices. Under U.S. copyright law, any original content you display on your Website, all text descriptions, artwork, articles and graphics are automatically protected from creative theft the moment you publish them. However you must place copyright notices next to your work to alert people that you are the rightful owner of the material.

It's not necessary to officially register with the U.S. Copyright Office to display a copyright notice. But official copyright registration is beneficial because it enables you to sue for damages in court in the event someone plagiarizes your material. Copyright registration costs $30 per application, and you can easily download the forms from the U.S. Library of Congress.

Stay alert. Keep your eyes and ears open for plagiarism on- and offline. Patrol the Web regularly and develop a strong network of contacts who can look out for copycats. If you find your content duplicated, write to the contact at the company, let her know the material is copyrighted or trademarked, and politely ask them to stop using it.
TIP:A letter like this will have much more clout if it comes from your lawyer. To save legal costs, you can have your attorney draw up a standard "cease and desist" letter that you can copy and send when necessary.

Have mutual respect. Remember, just as you protect your own intellectual property rights, you want to be sure that you don't infringe on others' trademarks or copyrights. Don't post any copyrighted material on your Website without permission from the owner and make sure you include that person's copyright/trademark notices.
TIP: Never use any trademarked names in your domain name or in the metatags and keywords that lead search engines to your site. This constitutes trademark infringement and could result in your getting a "cease and desist" letter of your own one day.

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