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How to Protect Your Intellectual Property

Merriam-Webster defines intellectual property, or IP, as “property (as an idea, invention, or process) that derives from the work of the mind or intellect; also: an application, right, or registration relating to this.”

The Report of the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property in 2013 found that losses to U.S. businesses from IP theft topped $300 billion each year. Earlier this month, more than 3,000 counterfeit shoes, hats, and other merchandise were seized in Indiana.



While there may be no way to be fully protected, there are steps you can take to heighten the protection of your intellectual property (IP).

Identify your IP. Take an inventory of your IP.

It may be comprised of trademarked goods, trade secrets, databases, software codes, patented items, or other property. Andrew Sherman’s book, Harvesting Intellectual Assets, can help you take a complete inventory so you don’t overlook anything. Knowing what you have enables you to then learn what protections are needed or available.

Take formal actions. Some types of intellectual property—patents, trademarks, and copyrights—can be registered with the government to give you strong protection.

Learn more from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the U.S. Copyright Office.  Recognize, however, that this legal protection is only in the U.S. To gain protection abroad requires registration in other countries.

Protect your trade secrets. Not everything can or should be registered, and it’s up to you to take action that will protect formulas, customer lists, and other trade secrets that you don’t want falling into a competitor’s hands.

Require all employees to understand your IP, and have them sign confidentiality agreements barring them from disclosing your secrets during employment and after they leave.

Take legal action. You may be forced to take legal action in order to protect your IP.

The legal action should be commensurate with the unauthorized use of your IP.

Here are some ideas:

  • If someone is using your trademark, a cease and desist letter may be all that is necessary to stop the infraction.
  • If you learn that your goods are being counterfeited, report IP theft to the authorities, explained later.
  • If, despite a nondisclosure agreement, a former employee is using your computer codes, seek a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction on the grounds that you would suffer irreparable harm if this continues. Commence a lawsuit seeking to recoup monetary damages for your injury and a permanent injunction against the use of your proprietary information.

Work with a knowledgeable attorney to assess the merits of legal action and whether it makes financial sense to proceed.

Don’t do business with counterfeiters. Refrain from buying counterfeit goods, which only encourages more counterfeiting.

A price for an item that seems too good to be true is a tip-off. Check for authorized retailers and be skeptical of labeling that could be fake.


If, despite all your hard effort you still become a victim of IP theft, report it to the federal government’s IPR Center. View the IPR Center’s brochure on reporting allegations of intellectual property theft.