If you haven’t already, you’re bound to experience this eventually. You’ve built a business, started generating revenue, and along comes a lawsuit claiming that you stole a word, design, product, or even a rectangle in some more bizarre cases.
What are you to do? Lawyer up with the little funds your growing business has? Do shell out in the hopes of making your IP law problems disappear?
In July, we assembled a crew of lawyers specializing in the bizarre world of Intellectual Property law to give advice and answer questions for our entrepreneurs. David Wong from Barnes and Thornburg, Jim Gatto from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, and Dustin Dubois from Ice Miller joined us to discuss everything from common IP pitfalls to the growing Indianapolis startup community. They provided great insights in true Verge fashion… In front of a packed Speak Easy with beers in hand. Here’s a rundown of some of their best advice.
IP Law: The Preemptive Strike
From the beginning, you should keep an eye on potential legal pitfalls. This doesn’t just protect you from using ideas that are patented, but it will defend you against someone else patenting your idea… Yes, even if you came up with it first.
“We used to have a system where whoever invented something first would get a patent,” Jim said, “Now it’s whoever gets to the patent office first.”
When and how to start? Jim believes it’s simpler than it sounds.
“Spend an hour or two, sit down with a lawyer, and figure out what your legal issues are… It’s really important to get a clear picture up front.”
Find Good Mentors
In addition to covering your rear to begin with, you will undoubtedly encounter plenty of unknowns along the way. To combat that, find a good set of mentors who can help guide you.
Speaking to the crowd, David said “Make sure you’re surrounding yourself with people who have been here before.”
We’ve covered finding mentors here before, but finding legal mentors can be very different. Not all of us have friends studying for the Bar. So how do you find someone who can help you navigate the law without paying a million dollars an hour for a consultation?
The first step is to ask around. Between friends, family, and your awesome pals here at Verge, you probably know someone who knows a lawyer who would be happy to help. If you can’t find someone through networking, see if you can get a free legal consultation from a local law firm or even law professors specializing in IP at your local University. Not only will this help you avoid costly legal mistakes, but you’ll certainly avoid costly business mistakes as well.
Don’t Feed the Patent Trolls
“Patent trolls are people who don’t create intellectual property, rather they go out and find patents that have been issued already by either a failed company or someone who is not using them.” Jim explained, “They buy the patents, and they go in and find people to serve them against.”
As an entrepreneur, how do you defend yourself against that Goliath of a problem? Sometimes the best defense can be a good offense.
“By filing patents, especially under the new law, you prevent from someone else patenting your idea.”
“Your business is much more valuable to [corporations] with patents because it allows them to block out their competitors,” Jim said. Surprisingly, a 2002 survey of the Fortune 500 companies estimated that anywhere from 45 to 75 percent of their wealth came from Intellectual Property.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that these patents are only for startups looking to get bought out, either. The rule of thumb we have heard from investors is that each patent a startup has tends to add about $1 Million to their valuation.
But Don’t Over Think It, Either
While filing patents and covering yourself is definitely a good idea, patent issues shouldn’t be your primary concern.
“You might want to take that money and focus it more towards building your product and developing your marketing plan than worrying about who you’re going to get sued by. We’ll worry about that once you have the money to actually fend off a lawsuit,” advised Dustin.
As important as it is to get yourself aligned legally, nothing is more important to your business than making sure that it is profitable. He went on to say, “Don’t think that IP dominates your business. It doesn’t. Your ability to go out there and execute and sell a product is so much more important than IP.”
Intellectual Property can be a very important piece in the puzzle of starting a business, but it shouldn’t dominate your business. If you can protect yourself from the beginning and surround yourself with a team of advisors, you can fend off most legal issues in IP. This may cause some patent trolls to starve, but we only have one thing to say to them…
For more information, advice, and networking opportunities for entrepreneurs, come to our next pitch night and follow us on Twitter @VergeIndy.