AVOIDING PATENT, TRADEMARK AND COPYRIGHT PROBLEMS
Patents, copyrights and trademarks, as well as know-how or trade
secrets, are often collectively referred to as intellectual
property. Many firms have such property without even being aware
of it or of the need to take measures to protect it.
Many people's notions of intellectual property are unrealistic.
Some believe, for example, that having a patent on a product will
enable one to succeed in the marketplace. Consequently, they may
spend thousands of dollars to obtain the exclusive rights to
market something that no one wants or can afford to buy. Others
may conclude that intellectual property protection is not worth
the expense and bother.
People who may not be interested in protecting their own rights
still must take precautions to avoid infringing on the rights of
others. This calls for more than the avoidance of copying.
Copying is unavoidable; it is a way of life and one way in which
we learn. But, one can easily infringe on the rights of others
without deliberately imitating specific features of goods or
This publication addresses the steps newcomers to a market should
take to avoid infringement and when they should take them.
Most people have heard variations on a remark attributed to Ralph
Waldo Emerson: If a man can make a better mousetrap than his
neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods the world will
beat a path to his door. To keep the discussion concrete, let's
imagine a present day inventor of a new mousetrap who not only
invents a better mousetrap but is also successful in marketing
it. The higher the inventor's profit margin, the more others will
want to copy his invention. Let's assume that the inventor
selects Figaro as the brand name and actively promotes the
product. However, he does not legally protect his invention, but
relies on the consumers' loyalty, goodwill and brand
identification to ensure future sales.
Taking measures to develop loyalty and goodwill may be sufficient
until a larger and better known competitor turns up. For example,
what if economies of scale and lack of development costs mean
that the competitor can sell the same mousetrap for 20 percent
less? Goodwill may not be enough to ensure customer loyalty at a
higher price. A patent would be much more helpful, because it
would prevent the competitor from selling the new trap until well
after the original firm had a chance to get on its feet. This
situation illustrates that it is the smaller firm that often has
the most to gain from protecting intellectual property.
As bad as the situation is without patent protection, it could be
worse. Let's assume that customers are so taken by the Figaro
promotion that they are willing to pay the 25 percent premium the
firm charges in order to stay in business. Imagine what would
happen if the company had to stop using that name or had to face
an expensive lawsuit. Imagine what would happen if it turns out
that someone else actually has a current patent on one or more
features of the better mousetrap. By failing to consider the
intellectual property of others, the new firm would not only be
forced to stop selling under the name Figaro, but might be forced
to stop selling the mousetrap altogether.
AVOIDING PATENT INFRINGEMENT
Utility patents - what people usually mean when they use the term
patents - provide 17 years of exclusive rights for inventions that
deal with the way things work. Design patents afford 14 years of
protection for significant improvement in the appearance of
useful items, such as car bodies or furniture. Both of these
patents do more than prevent copying; they forbid the making,
using or selling of an invention similar to or the same as the
protected invention, even though the second invention was
independently created. (Plant patents, which will not be covered
in this discussion, may not give the same protection.)
Copying may actually be a way to avoid infringement. The inventor
of the mousetrap might have avoided potential problems by using
technology that was described in a printed publication, publicly
used or on sale. Products that are on sale and give no notice of
patent coverage are relatively free from the risk of
Any person trying to market fairly new technology that doesn't
appear to be patented should keep in mind that an inventor has
one year from public sale or disclosure within which to file a
patent application. In addition, because patents often take two or
more years to obtain, there is still a chance that a patent could
be issued at a later time. Although there is no liability for
infringement prior to issuance of a patent, a competitor would
have to cease making, using or selling the technology once the
patent was issued, thus risking the loss of both start-up costs
Of course, if our inventor was determined to make a better
mousetrap, there would be no interest in copying something else in
the market. Still, before spending too much time and money on
research, the inventor should ensure that others do not have
exclusive rights in the area being explored. The inventor
certainly should not assume that, because a product is not on the
market, it is unpatented. As many independent inventors have
learned to their chagrin, it is usually easier to patent something
than to market it profitably.
A PATENT SEARCH
The inventor should hire a patent attorney or agent to conduct an
infringement search. A patent agent is a technically trained
person who has passed a special examination given by the U.S.
Patent and Trademark Office; a patent lawyer is one permitted to
draft contracts and provide other general legal services. Patent
searches can be expensive if one must consult foreign records; it
is much less costly to determine whether technology is currently
patented in the United States. Yet, as we will see, there is value
in going somewhat beyond that point.
A search might reveal that (1) someone else had a patent that has
since expired, i.e., the information patented is now in the public
domain; (2) no current or expired patents cover the area of
proposed research or (3) someone else has a current patent
covering all or part of the proposed design. Let's consider these
potential results in order.
THE INVENTION IS IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN
If the mousetrap (or an obvious variation) was disclosed in an
expired patent, the inventor is free to manufacture and market it
without concern for the patent laws. Also, even if the inventor
didn't find exactly what he or she originally had in mind, a host
of good and freely used ideas that are even better might have
been discovered. These alone could be worth several times the
price of the search in saving research and development time.
ONE OR MORE ELEMENTS OF THE PROPOSED MOUSETRAP APPEAR TO BE NEW
If, after a thorough search, our inventor's proposed improvements
to the mousetrap seem not only to be novel but also to offer
significant advantages over the prior design, the inventor may
seek a patent and/or begin selling the mousetrap without further
ado. If, however, the inventor begins selling without first filing
a patent application, he immediately forfeits possible protection
in many other countries and also forfeits any possibility of
patent rights in the United States after one year.
ASPECTS OF THE PROPOSED DESIGN ARE COVERED BY A CURRENT PATENT
If an unexpired patent is found to cover any part of the proposed
mousetrap design, the inventor knows that he is not free to use it
without a license. Infringing on a current patent exposes one to
a suit for damages as well as an injunction against future use.
Even an injunction might mean substantial costs, including the
loss of current inventory, and a patent covering even a small
feature of the new mousetrap might give rise to the need to
retool. Although deliberate infringement is more serious,
ignorance of others' patents is no defense.
Trademarks (or brand names) indicate commercial source.
Trademarks may be words, logos or other symbols indicating that
goods come from a particular company. They may even be sounds,
three-dimensional symbols (such as the well-known McDonald's
golden arches) or colors. There are also service marks, which
indicate the source of services, and other kinds of marks that
will not be considered here.
As with patents, one can infringe on another's marks without
copying them or even being in direct competition with their
owner. All that is necessary is to use the same or a similar mark
under circumstances in which consumers may be confused as to the
source or sponsorship of the goods or services.
A TRADEMARK SEARCH
A trademark search is the only way to find out whether Figaro or
something confusingly similar is being used by others as a mark
for a mousetrap (or perhaps such things as rodenticides) in the
proposed market area. It is also necessary to determine whether
the mark has been registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark
Office, which could give the registrant rights well beyond the
market areas currently occupied.
There are two reasons why a search may not be sufficient. First,
in the United States, it is unnecessary for a firm to do more than
use a good mark to have trademark rights in its market area.
Consequently, a search may not locate all such prior users. Second,
people may be able to prevent the use of a potential mark without
having used it as a mark themselves; for example, when a trademark
can be associated with others in such a way that consumers might
presume that some kind of relationship might exist. This is where
the mark Figaro would run into trouble.
As you may recall, Figaro is the name of the cat in the Disney
film Pinocchio. Although the Walt Disney Company does not have
a monopoly on the use of the name, it might nevertheless be able
to prevent it from being used on a mousetrap. If that seems too
farfetched, consider the company's concern if "Mickey" had somehow
been part of the mousetrap name!
A copyright provides an owner with the exclusive rights to
reproduce a certain work for a specified period, subject to some
basic limits. The term of a copyright is the lifetime of the
author plus 50 years in the case of identifiable, living authors.
Copyrights arise automatically and are inexpensive to register.
Searching for a prior copyright is probably unnecessary.
Copyright infringement can be avoided by establishing that a work
was independently created. Therefore, records showing independent
creation are helpful to avoid liability. Even with such records,
establishing independent creation may be difficult if the
original work was widely disseminated or otherwise available to
the alleged infringer. In one such case, the court held that,
although copying may have been unconscious, the original was
One of the limits to copyright protection is that ideas (compared
to expressions) and technology (computer software aside) are
generally not protected. This means that our inventor is free, at
least as far as copyright laws are concerned, to use any
information that can be found in books on mousetrap designs and
to make and sell working copies of anything shown or described.
Copyright gives the owner only the right to prevent reproduction
of the text or drawings themselves.
What if the inventor wants to use some of that text, for example,
in an advertisement? There is a remote possibility that such use
might be protected under the "fair use" defense, but it would be
very unwise to proceed without getting permission from the
copyright holder or seeking expert advice.
Trade secrets overlap the subject matter of copyrights and
patents. As long as efforts have been made to preserve secrecy, a
suit may be brought to redress the misappropriation (or wrongful
taking) of almost any kind of information of competitive value.
Misappropriation includes industrial espionage and breaches of
confidential relationships (for example, by former employees), but
it does not include reverse engineering. Thus, a trade secret suit
will not succeed if an aspect of a product's design or
construction was obtained by examining an item purchased in the
marketplace. Nor will a suit be useful against those who
independently discover a secret process or recompile commercially
The risk of being accused of misappropriating a trade secret is
never very high, particularly if one seeks competent legal advice
before using unlicensed information that has not been obtained
through reverse engineering.
THE NEED FOR EXPERIENCED COUNSEL
Any attorney admitted to practice in any state in the country is
technically qualified to register trademarks with the U.S. Patent
and Trademark Office or copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office
in Washington D.C. Unlike the situation with patents, no special
examination is given to determine whether the attorney is
familiar with the copyright or trademark law or registration
procedures, for example. Clients are advised to seek an attorney
who specializes in such matters.
Whether or not our mousetrap inventor takes measures to preserve
the intellectual property, he or she certainly should avoid
infringing on the rights of others. Although this is not
difficult in the case of copyrights and trade secrets, patents and
trademarks are another matter altogether.
Unquestionably, it costs precious start-up capital to have patent
and trademark searches performed; however, proceeding in a new
venture without doing so is equivalent to erecting a building or
signing a long-term lease without checking the real estate title.
Searches will not make the product appeal to the public, but they
will ensure enjoyment of any hard-won market success. A patent
search is comparatively cheap insurance against the possible need
to retool or to absorb inventory losses. Moreover, a close look
before adopting a trademark is cheaper in the long run than the
cost of advertising and new promotions designed to advise
customers to seek the mousetrap under a new name.
APPENDIX A: FURTHER INFORMATION ON INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
Patent and Trademark Office, Washington, DC 20231, or the United
States Trademark Association, 6 E. 45th Street, New York, NY 10017.
Both publish free or inexpensive booklets.
Write to the Copyright Office, Washington, DC 20559, indicating the
subject matter in which you are particularly interested, for
example, music or arts.
"Patents Trademarks and Copyrights", Lawrence E. Evans, Jr., 1986,
Gunn, Lee and Jackson, Eleven Greenway Plaza, Suite 1616, Houston, TX
You may want to consult one or more of the many inventors'
handbooks available at public libraries. One example is "How to
Profit From Your Ideas", Flemming Bank, 1985 ($12.95). Bank and
Associates, P.O. Box 20365, Portland, OR 97220. This is a
step-by-step guide that shows how you can make money by turning
your creative ideas into marketable products.
can help YOU. Click on the lightning for a jump-start.
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