A new year means a new beginning for many entrepreneurs. Since many new businesses are founded at the beginning of the year, it is a perfect time for new businesses as well as existing ones to get a few tips on intellectual property.

Along with human creativity and inventiveness, intellectual property is all around us. Every product that we use in our daily lives is the result of a chain of big or small innovations, such as changes in designs, or improvements that make a product function the way it does today. Take a simple product, for example: a pen. Ladislao Biro’s famous patent on ballpoint pens was a breakthrough, but just like him, others have improved the product and legally protected their improvements through the acquisition of IP rights.

This being said, your business should systematically consider the steps required for protecting, managing and enforcing IP in order to get the best possible commercial results from its ownership. If you are using IP that belongs to others, then you should consider buying it or acquiring the rights to use it by taking a license to avoid a dispute or expensive litigation. 

Here are some IP tips you should follow, according to John B. Farmer, a lawyer with the Leading-Edge Law Group PLC, specializing in IP law:

Educate yourself. Learn about IP basics like patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. Read about patents and trademarks on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website, and about copyrights on the U.S. Copyright Office website.

Anything could be trade secret. Your company name, the names of your products and your advertising slogans are each likely to be trademarks. Any information you keep secret and that gives your business an advantage could be a trade secret.

Hire an attorney. Before you start a business, consider hiring an IP law attorney to have a discussion about issues, and about the order of magnitude of expense you will face to address them.

Check current job restrictions. Be sure you don’t have entanglements with your current job that would hamper your new business.  You might have signed something that limits what you can do, or what you can use from your old job.

Budget realistically. To handle IP needs of a new business, you’ll probably spend several thousand dollars upfront plus much more.

IP management is on-going. Handling IP issues in a new company is not a once-and-done affair. You will have a continuing stream of IP management/maintenance issues and legal expense during the life of your company.

Talk to your staff. Contractually nail down IP issues with co-founders and employees at the beginning of those relationships. If you don’t, you might create problems that could be nearly impossible to fix later.

Vet potential trademarks. Do this before you commit to them. Just getting incorporated under a name, or registering a domain name does not secure your ability to use those names in business.

Understand the world of patents. Regardless of whether you seek patents, explore whether your products or services might infringe on the patents of others.

Keep sensitive info secret. Sometimes trade-secret protection is the least expensive but most important protection for a small business. Learn about ways to identify and keep confidential your new business’ most sensitive information.

Read the contract and understand it. Your new business probably will sign contracts with other individuals or businesses to get things done. Many contracts will bear on your IP situation, such as hiring advertising agencies, website developers, computer programmers, design engineers and consultants.

For more on intellectual property law, check out these articles:

BlackBerry files keyboard patent infringement suit

Kate Spade wins trademark infringement case against Surf for Saturday brand

Pennsylvania’s AG joins fight against patent trolls

GCs and AGs join hands to tackle patent litigation