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What you need to know about intellectual property laws

As an entrepreneur setting up your business, you undoubtedly have amazing ideas that you've been thinking about for years having to do with your product, your logo and your slogan. You can't wait to put it all into place.

But before you do, it's best to make sure you haven't violated the intellectual property rights belonging to another business.

Just what falls under the intellectual property heading?

  1. Trademarks are the words or symbols that help consumers and others identify a company or its goods and services. Look, for instance, at McDonald's. It has several trademarks. The name is its brand. The golden arches are its logo. "I'm lovin' it" has been a well-used slogan.
  2. Patents protect the rights to inventions for a certain amount of time and can cover a product's use or design.
  3. Copyrights protect original artistic works and include things such as literature, music, architecture and even computer software.
  4. Trade secrets are things that belong to a company that give it an advantage over competitors. Think again about McDonald's and the "special sauce" it puts on the Big Mac. It's a closely guarded recipe that other burger chains don't have, and the company has worked to protect it for more than 50 years.

Entrepreneurs could violate intellectual property rights in many ways without knowing it, but let's focus on one way: using work without owning the rights to it.

When you hire someone to create something for you – your logo, website content or graphics, for instance – you want to make sure what is created for your company actually is up for grabs. What if your web designer used a photo found on a social media site but never asked for permission from the owner to use it?

It needs to be explicitly stated in a contract that the creator gives his or her rights to that work to you. You need to have a contract with the photographer to transfer the rights to you.

Or what if your website content writer sells you content that they already wrote for another website? Problems could occur if there isn't a paper trail of contracts to show who owns the rights to the written material.

You want your business to get off on a good foot. It's wise to consult an attorney to make sure you're taking the proper steps to avoid legal trouble.

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