It's a tale that is far too common. You're busy with the day-to-day functions of your business when you notice something unique to your company or brand is being used in another business. It could be a logo, a design, a slogan, a jingle, a proprietary piece of software. Whatever it is, it's apparent that a competitor or an unethical employee has committed intellectual property (IP) theft against you. What recourse do you have? Can you stop the perpetrator and get compensation for the misuse of your IP?
The short answer is, yes, you can. Let's talk about IP theft, the steps you can take to protect your IP, and what you can do if someone steals it.
What Is Intellectual Property Theft?
Technically speaking, what we call “intellectual property theft” is a misnomer because IP is an idea—and ideas can't be stolen, only misused. What we're really talking about is a violation of your rights. When you create something original, the law gives you the exclusive right to exploit that creation as you see fit. When someone else obtains access to that original creation and uses it without your consent, they violate your right of exclusive use. Thus, intellectual property theft can be classified as any instance where someone takes an original idea or creation of yours and uses it for their own purposes without your permission—or even worse, claims to have come up with it themselves.
Ways to Protect Your Intellectual Property
According to the law, you (or, by extension, your company) owns the copyright to anything original it creates the moment it is completed—whether or not the copyright is registered. The challenge is in proving that you're the original owner of the IP. The more proof of ownership you have, the more legal grounds you have in court. The following steps won't necessarily stop someone from trying to steal your IP, but they will make it easier to get compensated if they do so:
- Register all copyrights and trademarks ASAP. Registering your intellectual property with the government creates an official dated record that shows when you assumed ownership. Registered copyrights, trademarks, and patents are the strongest ways to ensure those who steal are held to account.
- Safeguard your IP. Original documents and software programs should be stored securely in safes or under secure passwords, and they should only be shared with employees on a need-to-know basis.
- Obtain NDAs. Anyone in your company who has access to your IP should be made to sign a non-disclosure agreement pledging not to share proprietary information. This gives you an added safeguard in the event someone decides to try and steal it.
Steps to Take If Your Intellectual Property Has Been Stolen
If you discover someone is using your IP without your consent, take the following steps right away:
- Send a “cease and desist” letter. Notify the person(s) that you are aware of the IP theft and demand they stop using your proprietary information immediately.
- Gather your proof of ownership. Obtain copies of copyright and trademark certificates, as well as any signed NDAs.
- Hire an intellectual property attorney. Even if your “cease and desist” letter worked, you may still be entitled to compensation for any revenues that were inappropriately generated using your IP.
At John Marshall, Attorney at Law, we are well-experienced in IP theft cases and IP disputes, and we'll work aggressively to make sure your rights are protected. Contact us now to schedule an appointment.