How Do I Protect My Idea? Patents Revisited

Protect My Idea

You have a brilliant idea. With all your might, you are making it grow. You nurture it with your time, your energy, your hopes, your sweat, your dollars and your dreams.

This idea? Its time has arrived.

When you have put so much creativity, time and energy into something, you want to know that it is as well-protected as possible. My job as your attorney is to help you with the “how.” Sometimes, you know what kind of protection will work best for your idea. Sometimes, you don’t, or you aren’t sure which of your options is the best. This four-part series is a brief introduction to the various types of intellectual property. This is an updated version of the Patents post.

Patents are perhaps the most often-requested type of intellectual property protection; ironically, they can also be the least practical for many creators. Patents protect only a very limited scope of intellectual property:

Inventions and discoveries that are: 1) novel; 2) non-obvious; and 3) useful.

The only way to obtain patent protection is to apply for federal registration. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) will examine your patent application, and if it is found lacking in any of the three factors listed above, it will not register. Each of the three factors is a term of art. Although you may represent yourself in applying for a patent, an attorney’s guidance is often helpful in determining whether your invention or discovery meets the three-part test. Only a registered patent attorney or patent agent may act on your behalf in applying for a patent. Obtaining patent protection can be expensive, generally in the neighborhood of $10,000 between PTO fees and attorney fees, and after that, you have to make regular payments to the PTO to maintain it. If you have the right kind of invention or discovery, though, it can be worth every penny to get that registration.

Individuals considering patent protection should generally avoid sharing the invention or discovery with anyone, at least without a non-disclosure agreement in place. Publicly disclosing a patentable idea can destroy the chances of obtaining a patent in many foreign jurisdictions; and in the United States, it starts a one-year clock ticking on filing a patent application. After that one year is up, it will no longer be possible to obtain U.S. patent protection. In general, it is a good idea to keep an invention under wraps until you have had an opportunity to consult with an attorney about how best to protect it.

The major benefit of obtaining patent registration is that it grants you a monopoly on “making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the patented item for twenty years, even for personal use and even if the other party independently created it. That is a greater degree of protection, though a much shorter duration, than any other type of intellectual property.

The major drawback of obtaining patent registration is that you must publish your patent, so when your monopoly ends at the 20-year mark, everyone else knows how to make your formerly-patented item. If the patented material is still commercially viable at that point, you will have a lot of competition, though you will have a substantial head-start in the marketplace. If your branding is good, you may be able to continue to dominate for years to come. For further information, check out another kind of intellectual property, trademarks.

Further Reading

Patent section of the PTO website: http://www.uspto.gov/patents/index.jsp

How Do I Get a Copyright?

Intellectual Property - Copyright

I have had several people ask me recently how they can get a copyright in their works. There is good news: contrary to some rumors, you don’t have to do anything to get a copyright! If your work is copyrightable, copyright exists in that work at the moment of creation. But what kinds of works are copyrightable?

Copyright protects original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This means that if you have created something, it needs to be original to be eligible for copyright protection. Originality in copyright law means that a work has to both be independently created and have a minimum degree of creativity. If it lacks either of these factors, it is not eligible for copyright; courts have held that works like databases are not eligible for copyright protection because they lack the requisite creativity. A work must also be fixed to be eligible for copyright protection. If a particular creative work was not recorded in any way, it is not protected by copyright—legally, it has not yet been created. Merely fixed in memory does not count; the fixation must occur in a tangible medium of expression such that it is possible to reproduce it—this means that 1’s and 0’s on a hard drive do count as fixation, as ephemeral as they may seem at first blush.

So if copyright exists at the moment of creation, what do people mean when they say they “have a copyright” or “want to get a copyright”? In the United States, they are generally referring to copyright registration, the process of entering a creative work into the U.S. Copyright Office’s database of copyrighted works. Registration offers several benefits to copyright holders, including:

  • Establishing a public record of the copyright claim.
  • Allowing copyright holders to file infringement suits in court.
  • Owners of a registration can collect statutory damages and attorneys’ fees in a court action, if the registration is made within three months after publication of a work or prior to an infringement. Otherwise, the owner of the unregistered copyrighted work must prove actual damages in order to collect in court.
  • Registration establishes prima facie evidence (that is, evidence that will be accepted as establishing facts unless the other side can present evidence showing that it is not true) of the validity of the copyright and any facts stated in the registration certificate, if the registration is made within five years of publication.
  • Once a work is registered, the owner of a copyright can record the work with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service for protection against importation of infringing copies.

Because of the many benefits of protection, many copyright holders choose to register their copyrighted works. The Copyright Office has different rules and procedures for registration of different types of works, all of which are outlined on the Copyright Office website.

Interested in registering your copyrightable works but unsure how to go about it? The Law Office of Kelcey Patrick-Ferree offers copyright registration training and copyright registration services. Contact me for more detail.

Pinterest Copyright Questions and Concerns

Pinterest for Business

The Social Networking Nanny, Lanae, and I co-wrote a blog post over at Lanae’s blog:
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“The last few months have been a whirlwind here at Pinterest. It’s hard to explain how it feels to go from a small group of people working on a virtually unknown website, to a slightly bigger team of people working on a service that millions of people use every day.” (Pinterest spokesperson to CBS’s WCCO)

Isn’t that statement the truth! In a busy, busy world who doesn’t love a fast and easy way to share ideas, recipes, fashion and more…hello Pinterest! It sparked our interest, 12 million of us have flocked to it, and for many of us it became an immediate addiction. And then the “fine print” was made bold to us. … Nobody likes reading the fine print, but interpreting this was scary. Could we possibly be violating people’s Copyrights? … Read more

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Legal Issues Around Pinterest

Pinterest for Business

Arik Hanson of ACH Communications interviewed me about Pinterest:

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A few weeks ago, I was at an event that focused on, you guessed it, Pinterest. Great, I thought. We’ll hopefully hear about some of legal issues swirling around Pinterest for brands right now. It was just that week before that legal concerns had broke–and one attorney/photog had taken down her Pinterest board as a result. But, unfortunately, we didn’t get to discuss those legal concerns at this event–even though there was an attorney at the event who just so happened to specialize in social media.

So, I thought I’d take this chance to approach said attorney to answer some of the questions I have about Pinterest and brand usage (as I’m sure many others do at this point) and open up the discussion a bit…. Read more

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What Do Pinterest’s Updated Terms of Service Mean for Business Users?

Pinterest for Business

By now you are probably aware that Pinterest has updated its Terms of Service and Privacy Policy as of March 23, 2012. The changes will be effective April 6, 2012. The site has been sending emails to users informing them of the update and has posted the email regarding the changes to its blog as well.

Before diving into the changes, I want to note that Pinterest has joined what is apparently becoming a trend in the approach to updating the Terms. It has, like Facebook and Google before it, made sure its users have notice of the changes (via email and/or notifications in several places within the site) and an opportunity to decide whether or not they should continue using the site in light of the changes. For over a decade, it has been standard practice for sites reserve the right to make changes without notice, or with only a very small notice at the bottom of the page near the link to the Terms, and bind users to the updated terms merely by visiting the site, whether or not they have viewed the updated terms. As more and more sites make it their standard practice to notify users and give them time to decide whether to accept an updated policy, the courts may change their approach to this topic. It is worth keeping an eye on and considering in choosing how to notify users of policy updates.

Now, moving on to the meat of the changes.

One of the major changes for business users is that it is now one hundred percent clear that Pinterest makes its users responsible for any violation of copyright caused by their re-pins. The Terms specifically state that “It is important that you understand that you are in the best position to know if the materials you post are legally allowed. We therefore ask that you please be careful when deciding whether to make User Content available on our Service, including whether you can pin or re-pin User Content on your boards” (emphasis added). The disclaimer section also provides that “you agree that we are only acting as a passive conduit for your AND OTHER USERS’ online distribution and publication of your AND THEIR User Content.” In other words, a user cannot simply rely on an assumption that other users have legitimately pinned any content to Pinterest; they need to verify that content is legitimately on the site before re-pinning. (For tips on how to get your business’s content onto Pinterest and assure users that you want them pinning and re-pinning your content, check out my post “Do You Like Free Advertising? Or, How to Make Pinterest Work for Your Business.”)

Pinterest is also making a nod to copyright fair use in its modified Terms; users are now granted a license “to use the Service, including accessing and viewing Pinterest Content, for your personal, noncommercial use to allow you to express yourself, discuss public issues, report on issues of public concern, engage in parody and as expressly permitted by the features of the Service.” Pinterest has likely added this to its Terms to bolster its claims that it is not encouraging its users to violate copyright law; it is only providing a forum for them to make fair use of others’ images. Pinterest does not want to be the next Napster. Business will want to bear in mind how fair use is different from other uses when pinning or re-pinning content.

Unfortunately, the updated Terms have some problems. For example, the license granted by the new Terms is limited to “personal, non-commercial use” in Section 2(b); but in Section 4(b), business users are granted the right to create an account so long as the individual creating the account has the authority to create it and bind the business to the Terms of Service. It is not clear whether pinning a business’s own content along with some commentary or an invitation to interact, one of the more logical ways for businesses to use the site, could be considered “commercial.” The original Terms of Service had similar terms about non-commercial use, though, and web searches did not turn up any Pinterest actions against business users.

Pinterest has also added a binding arbitration clause at Section 11, along with a limitation on class-action law suits. Whether a company is comfortable submitting to binding arbitration by using the site is largely a business decision but should definitely be brought to the attention of the company’s lawyer.

Also potentially problematic from the standpoint of the business user is that the Terms, including all rights and licenses assigned by them, cannot be transferred by users. One of those rights is the right to have and use an account. At least for the moment, there is only one account type, and an account opened by any individual on behalf of a company appears to be owned jointly by the company and the individual so far as Pinterest’s Terms are concerned. Businesses will want to make sure that their employment policies or agreements are clear on the subject of who owns social media accounts (although this is a best practice in general).

What do you think? Will your business begin or continue using Pinterest in light of these changes?