Intellectual Property: What Is It? & How Can We Protect It?

Intellectual property. You can’t touch it, you can’t smell it, but it exists, and it’s very important. What is it? And how can we protect it? Jim Weiland from Charlotte SCORE has the answers.

AB- Andrew Bowen             JW- Jim Weiland

AB – Calling all entrepreneurs. Thank you for answering and tuning into CBR’s B2U Podcast, bringing business directly to you. As always, our goal is to connect you to the information you need to start and run a successful business. Today, we’re going to be continuing with the fourth and final part of our conversation with Jim Weiland from SCORE. So far, we have discussed how SCORE can help you with getting funding, as well as some great tips for marketing your business and increasing sales. If you haven’t yet, check out parts 1, 2, and 3 at CBRbiz.com.

Welcome back, Jim. Thanks again for being here.

JW – Thank you.

AB – Awesome. Well, we’ve done Parts 1, 2, and 3, and now we get to do the fun one: intellectual property. You can’t touch it, you can’t smell it, but it exists, and it’s very important. (JW – Sure is!) What is it? And how can we protect it?

JW – Interesting question. It’s not the same as…let’s say that you have a widget that you want to get patented. A widget is something you can touch and feel. Intellectual property…to give you a good example, most people know what software is in the IT industry. So Microsoft’s applications run their laptops and their iPhones and everything else. That has intellectual property in it because there are things in it that are privy only to the owner of the business. So a business needs to decide what things they feel, if someone else were to just take it, would impact their business negatively.

How to protect it is interesting. Let me give you a couple other examples of intellectual property that are less esoteric than software.

You have a process. It’s a restaurant, which, Andrew, you’ve been in. It’s a restaurant, and you have a process that you use to create your milkshake that makes it thicker than everybody else’s. Not a recipe–a process. The recipe itself is intellectual property, by the way, but the process is also intellectual property, or can be, because it makes your product unique.

How you protect it is interesting. I don’t profess to tell somebody how they can protect their intellectual property. What I do is–and we do have clients that come in, and we do discuss intellectual property and we discuss how they’re going to protect it–what I ask them is…you’re starting a business, and you have some concerns–Let me use the milkshake process. If you will bear with me, Andrew, on that.

I’ll say, Well, have you got an attorney that you have talked to about how to protect that process? If they have not talked to an attorney…which I’m going to give you an interesting statistic and our listeners a statistic…I would say that 60-70% of the people that come to us that want to start businesses haven’t talked to a lawyer.

AB – Wow. Do you think that many folks have not spoken to an attorney out of fear of going into the office and not being exactly sure about what they need to talk about with the attorney?

JW – Well, you know that’s an interesting thing.  The short answer is yes. But there is also…they don’t have the money, and the Mecklenburg County Bar Association has a program where, for $50 and a half-hour discussion, they’ll help you decide where you need to go and who you need to talk to. What we recommend is that they haven’t got an attorney…a standard attorney isn’t  going to be able to help them. They need to go to a patent and intellectual property attorney.

AB – So there are specialized attorneys?

JW – Yes, but who they are and whether they can trust them…the thing about the Mecklenburg County Bar Association is you can trust who they recommend. It shortcuts your search to get to the right person. The money thing you can solve up front initially with this discussion…if they’re going to get into a long-term working with an attorney–and patent and intellectual property attorneys, they do a lot of hard work and they get a fee–but at least you’ll get the advice as to whether the thing you are thinking is intellectual property is intellectual property or not. Maybe my example of the process is not accurate.

AB – What you’re saying is something one might think is intellectual property may not be at all? Do you have a good example of what that is?

JW – Now you’re going to make me think here.

AB – If not, that’s ok.

JW – Things that are not intellectual property are things that are common in the world. Using a pencil–everybody does it. Even if you created a unique pencil, it wouldn’t be intellectual property, let alone patentable.

But let me give you a better example. Menus–the content on a menu could be intellectual property if it was unique. But let’s say that you have a Cam Newton burger, and you were the first one that came up with that…

AB – Sound’s delicious.

JW – Yeah. And you put it on your menu, and the next thing you see in the next burger joint down the street, is they have a Cam Newton burger. You just lost your uniqueness, and it is now no longer intellectual property. So if you’re going to do something like that, then you need to work with an attorney on how you protect it.

Intellectual property can become very complicated.

AB – It sounds like it does very quickly also. And that’s where talking to you folks at SCORE and then talking to the folks over at the Mecklenburg County Bar Association, with the it sounds like a very reasonable 30 minute consultation, and their ability to direct you to a good attorney. It sounds like it helps boil this very nuanced piece of the business down a little bit and make it a little bit easier for folks to chew.

JW – It’s easier for folks to talk about patenting something because that’s a tangible thing. Intellectual property is intangible, if that makes sense. (AB – It does.) Its words, thoughts, its processes, its approaches…but you can’t touch them necessarily. And yet, if you think about the Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe…as you know, that died with the Colonel. Nobody has it. They’re doing something different, and that was intellectual property. That recipe was intellectual property.

AB – That’s pretty fascinating. His way to protect it, I suppose, was to actually not tell anyone ever.

JW – Right, that was his way to protect it. In the restaurant industry, as you know, you can do that with certain things for your restaurant, right? Whatever spices you put in your homemade dressing.

AB – And don’t tell anyone how you made the dressing.

JW – Right. Don’t forget how you do it yourself.

AB – I’m reminded of the very broad recipes, where it was actually my grandmother. A pinch of this, a handful of this, a couple shakes of this, and we’d look at her and say How much?

JW – I learned to cook from my grandmother and my dad. My dad owned a restaurant, too, and that was different kind of cooking, right? The good stuff, like the dressing, I cook at home. The dressing I make on Thanksgiving for the turkey, is all by guess and by golly. Grandma taught me to do a little of this, a little of that, put some raisins in, put some apples in, you know, but only you know what it is in your head. And each of my four kids, over the course of them growing up and raising their families, have called and said, Can you give us the recipe for the dressing?

AB – And you say No because it doesn’t exist.

JW – That’s right, so I said, Try this.

AB – Intellectual property–protecting it sounds like a very active exercise. It’s something you can’t just assume will stay yours. You have to define it and then protect it with the help of legal representation.

JW – Yes, do not try to protect it without an attorney. End of game.

AB – That is a wonderful bottom line and I’m sure the Mecklenburg County Bar Association thanks you for the plug.

JW – Absolutely.

AB – Well great. Jim, you have been awesome. Thanks for sharing all of this important information with our listeners. This has been the fourth and final part of our conversation with Jim Weiland from SCORE. Listeners, if you want to learn more about starting and funding your own business or about SCORE, visit CBRbiz.com, or follow us on Twitter @CBRbiz. Stay tuned for our next podcast.

Thanks for tuning in to CBR’s B2U Podcast, bringing business directly to you. Until next time, we mean business.

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