Ali Brown, Founder and CEO of Ali International LLC

Entrepreneur mentor Ali Brown teaches women around the world how to start and grow a profitable business that make a positive impact. Get her FREE CD “Top 10 Secrets for Entrepreneurial Women” at

With the online masses crying out against the PIPA/SOPA bills this week (check out my recent blog post on the debate here), it couldn’t be a better time to do an assessment of your business, and make sure you are protecting your intellectual property, and not infringing on anyone else’s!

Let’s define the legal ways that you may protect your creativity:

1. Copyright. According to the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (USPTO), a copyright “protects works of authorship, such as writings, music, and works of art that have been tangibly expressed.” In the United States, copyright is secured automatically when the work is created. Use © on your website, your articles, and elsewhere. Some use the free product Copyscape to help ward off plagiarists who might “borrow” your website content.

2. Trademark/Registered Trademark. The USPTO’s short definition for trademark is, “a brand name.” Use ® if the trademark has been registered, and ™ if it has not. For example, my Ali’s Success Club is a brand that I’d like to protect, so wherever you see these two words together, we add the ™ symbol to protect our brand. You do establish rights by using the trademark symbol, but in some cases, you may want to take it a step further by conducting a trademark search using TESS (Trademark Electronic Search System) at the USPTO website. (Check out their Small Business section here.) After determining that your trademark is available, the next possible step is registering it.

3. Patent. Did you know that you can’t patent an idea? The USPTO grants patents for inventions for 20 years, effective only in the United States. Your invention must be “new, useful, and non-obvious.” Patents are more complicated than copyrights or trademarks, and you’ll probably want to involve an attorney with this. You can get more information here.

Now that you have some of the intellectual property terminology down, what other ways can you protect yours?

– Use Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). Many workplaces require that you sign an NDA, and it’s smart. You may have already signed one yourself some time, so why not use one to protect your ideas? You can pick one up at a legal publishing company in your state or check out online legal forms on websites like Legal Zoom. Don’t reveal your ideas until you’re protected.

– Tweet carefully. When you tweet on Twitter, anyone can read it, so it becomes part of the public domain. So tweet with care, and don’t share your business ideas there before protecting them.

– Register domains for the long run. More than one big company has been embarrassed by forgetting to renew their domain name and been greeted with a blank webpage one morning. Don’t let that be you! Consider registering your domains for several years and creating a system for keeping the administration information current.

– Defend what you protect. Once you go to the trouble and expense of protecting your intellectual property, you will need to defend against people who encroach on your ideas. This takes time and money, so weigh the pros and cons of doing this. Sometimes a “cease and desist” letter from your attorney is all that it takes to make someone stop, especially if someone is ignorant of the law. Just make sure that you don’t spend more time defending what you’ve done in the past than innovating for the future.

– Consult an attorney. As your small business hits the big time, you’ll need to involve attorneys for a variety of important tasks. Do you homework and know what others in your industry are doing, and bring up your concerns with your attorney to determine your best approach.

Avoid Copyright Infringement

Even though corporations and the U.S. government still battling over how to stop online piracy, YOU as a business owner can make sure you aren’t contributing to the problem. If you pull quotes, statistics, and information for an article on your site, then make sure you give credit where it’s due. A simple, “According to…” to open up a statistic, or “(Source: LINK TO THE SOURCE)” following your quote should suffice.

Also, be weary about posting copyrighted music and images on your site or using them in your information products, logos, etc. Your best bet is to stick with royalty-free sites to grab images, music clips, etc.

Wikipedia defines royalty-free as, “the right to use copyrighted material or intellectual property without the need to pay royalties for each use or per volume sold, or some time period of use or sales.”

The Open Directory Project offers a very comprehensive list of nearly 50 websites where you can find music, many royalty-free. Here’s just a sampling…

AKM Music – Copyright free, Royalty free music and sound effects for television, video production and multimedia soundtracks.
All Music Library – Royalty-free, buyout, and production music tracks available as CDs or instant downloads. – Royalty free music loops for multimedia and web design projects
Crank City Music – Production Music Library, download premium royalty free MP3s or purchase CDs. Free production music downloads.
Cut to the Beat – royalty free music resource for Film, TV & web media producers. – Royalty free drum loops, music loops and sound effects, for use only in corporate media.

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