Copycats are thieves, not just in the literal sense but also figuratively when they steal another person’s work and present it as their own.
You have put a lot of time, effort and your own money into designing and manufacturing a product, or creating your teaching or coaching course. You hope that it will become yet another hit product for you. But before you can get to market, your product or idea is stolen by someone who wants to beat you in the marketplace. I trust that you will hardly find this flattering.
Myth 1: “Copying is a form of flattery.”
This is something you hear often. But copying is theft.
Forming an accurate view of what constitutes infringement of intellectual property rights requires a fundamental understanding that copying can never be considered a form of flattery or praise for someone else’s creativity because imitation does not hold any credit to either the original creator nor copycat perpetrator. Imitation takes away both parties’ abilities to produce new creative works.
Protecting your projects and yourself from copycats and intellectual property pirates is crucial to the survival, growth and sustainability of businesses, whether for startups, self-employed business owners, or large corporations.
This means that an entrepreneur must be extra cautious about any possible violations of intellectual property rights by a competitor, business partner, employee, outsourced freelancer or contractor, a trade show attendee or even a client, especially if the product in question is a digital one. The internet provides many more opportunities for copyright and trademark pirates to steal products because it is so easy to digitally replicate anything from a song to an entire coaching course. While you are developing your project, keep copyrights, trademarks, designs, patents and trade secrets in mind before you begin development.
Related: Practical Ways for Entrepreneurs to Protect Their Intellectual Property in Coworking Spaces
For novice entrepreneurs, intellectual property protection may sound like spending money on something you cannot see or touch. Whether it is a patent application for an invention or trademark registration to protect your brand name from being taken by another company, there is no way of knowing if the time and expense will be worth the outcome – until now!
As a practicing intellectual property and technology lawyer for 25 years, I am here to tell you that protecting your intangible assets early is undoubtedly worth your while, if you intend for your business to be successful and as long as you do it in the right way. Your future self will thank you for investing wisely in this area today.
Myth 2: “I have already registered my domain name and created my website. I don’t have any intellectual property.”
Intellectual property is a specialized area of the law that may be difficult to understand, but having some basic knowledge about the issue is important. Take a look at the website of your country’s government or an industry or trade association relevant to your business. You may find a lot of information that may make it easier to grasp why understanding intellectual property is important. At an absolute minimum, trademarks, copyright, confidential information, trade secrets, personal information and data security are relevant to all businesses.
What government and industry bodies will not be able to tell you is whether and how the different types of intellectual property rights may apply to you and your projects in practice, and what you actually need to do to properly protect, exploit and enforce them. This is because the advice, strategies and implementation tactics are highly unique and tailor-made for each business.
Once you have some understanding of the intellectual property that you and your business have, figure out:
- How to protect your intellectual assets through registrations and contracts and securing all the evidence,
- How to make use of and commercialize your intellectual property to create new business opportunities and maximize revenues, and
- How to leverage your intellectual property to get funding and investments.
Outsmarting the bad guys
Your knowledge assets are one of the critical success factors to enable you to create impact and accomplish your vision.
If you have been successfully running your business for some time, there is a good chance that you have accumulated lots of intangible assets, but they may be stowed away in the depths of your company. Talk to a specialist lawyer and carry out regular intellectual property audits every few years.
When your products and business start to become popular, chances are good that copycats and intellectual property pirates also have their eyes on you. Know that intellectual property infringers are savvy businessmen, too. They know how to profit considerably from your intellectual property that you are not protecting. Ironically, they tend to take the action steps that the rightful business owners might think are too costly in the early stages of their business.
There are multiple methods to enforce intellectual property rights depending on what your products and services are, whether and what registered and unregistered rights you have, where you are located, whether your business is online or offline, the nature and severity of the infringing activity, the identity and background of the infringer, what your budget is, and so on.
Typically, ways to beat the bad guys may involve administrative measures (such as filing trademark oppositions, raiding an infringer’s premises and seizing their goods), civil proceedings (such as filing an infringement lawsuit in court to seek injunctions and damages), criminal actions (such as having police or Customs authorities carry out raid actions and seizures), domain name resolution procedures, monitoring and taking down infringing products from online marketplaces, lobbying governments and regulatory bodies, and so forth.
For some business owners, the thought of copycats comes with a sense of dread. It feels like you are losing control over your business when the pirates seem to be selling an allegedly “improved version” of your product.
The reason most entrepreneurs find copycats so unbearable is because they can greatly threaten both your wallet and your reputation: When a customer purchases a copycat product, you do not just lose the sale of that product. It undermines your credibility, authority and brand image.
On top of that, if you, your team or your subcontractors are using pirated products unknowingly, then you may actually be paying for inferior products and infringing other people’s rights without even realizing it. It is bad news all around!
Fighting the good fight
But what if it wasn’t? What if fighting copycats was actually an opportunity for growth?
When enforcement of intellectual property rights is strategically planned and tactically executed in collaboration with other core business functions such as operations, sales and merchandising, as well as PR and communications, and with the relevant government, trade and industry bodies where appropriate, you may actually boost sales and reputation, infuse some life into brands or products that may have lost their luster, and establish new, impactful relationships with key stakeholders to your business.
Many pioneering entrepreneurs who are visionaries and innovators have unconventional ideas that will require unconventional support. Finding a properly experienced lawyer and business mentor early on in your venture will be an invaluable strategic and beneficial investment.
My message to you is clear: Properly protect and commercialize your intellectual assets, or else the copycats and pirates out there will do it for you.