What should every startup founder know about intellectual property law?

Most startup founders understand that intellectual property (IP) is important for their business, but understanding exactly what matters and what to do about it can be confusing.

This article provides an overview of IP law for startup founders. It covers different types of IPs, including patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets and open source licenses, and explains how startups can protect their innovations and differentiate themselves in a crowded market. The article also discusses the importance of data privacy, and outlines best practices for startups to safeguard customer data and comply with relevant regulations. By taking a proactive approach to IP and data privacy, startups can build trust with their customers, investors and partners, and position themselves for long-term success.

Because every startup is unique, it’s important to work with legal counsel to devise an IP strategy and execute it. If you’re looking for legal counsel, feel free to reach out to us here.


A patent is a legal protection granted by a government to an inventor for a specific invention, which can be a product or process that provides a new solution to a problem or a new way of doing something. An invention that meets the following criteria may be patented:

  • Novelty. The invention must be new and not disclosed to the public before the filing date of the patent application.
  • Non-Obviousness. The invention must also be non-obvious to a person skilled in the relevant field of technology.
  • The invention must have a useful and practical application.
  • The patent application should provide a written description that sufficiently describes the invention, its features and how to practice it.

To learn more about patents, click here.


A trademark is a type of IP that protects a word, phrase, symbol or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of goods or services. In short, it sets your company apart from others in the market. The primary goal of the U.S. trademark system is to prevent confusion among consumers, and to safeguard the reputation and goodwill associated with a particular brand.

Trademarks can cover logos, product names, slogans, and even sounds or colors associated with your brand. Note that trademarks only protect against similar marks in the same industry. If your logo is trademarked in the clothing industry but someone else has the same logo trademarked in the food industry, it’s unlikely to be a conflict between the two companies.

To learn more about trademarks, click here.


Copyright is a legal right that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights to use, distribute and sell that work, including literary, musical, artistic and other creative works. The purpose of copyright law is to protect the interests of creators by preventing others from using their work without permission.

To obtain copyright protection, the work must be original and fixed in a tangible form such as writing, music notation, recording, painting or drawing. Once a work meets these requirements, it is automatically protected by copyright law. However, registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office can provide additional benefits such as the ability to sue for infringement damages and establish a public record of ownership.

If someone infringes on your copyrighted material without permission, you can take legal action to stop them and recover damages if appropriate. This is why filing for a copyright may be important for startups that have created unique products or services that they want to protect from unauthorized use or reproduction by competitors.

It’s important to know that while you don’t need to register your copyright for it to be valid, registration does provide stronger legal protection in court.

To learn more about copyright, click here.

Trade Secrets

A trade secret is a piece of proprietary information that gives a business a competitive edge and is the subject of efforts to maintain its secrecy. This could be a formula, process, method, instrument, design, or compilation of information that is not generally known or reasonably ascertainable.

For a startup, trade secrets are particularly important because they can offer a crucial competitive advantage in the early stages of the business.

To learn more about trade secrets, click here.

Invention Assignment

If you don’t fully understand whether an individual or the company owns a specific IP, then you need to get this clarified immediately. Much of the value of your startup is dependent upon this single question.

Generally, the creator of an IP is the owner. But when it comes to startups, it’s important for the company to own the IP related to its products, services or operations. This is crucial for continuity, investor attractiveness, licensing and monetization, asset valuation, legal protection, scalability, and growth. To ensure that any IP created by employees or founders is owned by the company, startups use Confidential Information and Invention Assignment Agreements (CIIAA).

The CIIAA (sometimes called a Proprietary Information and Inventions Agreement, or a PIIA, or a Tech Assignment Agreement) is critical for any startup or technology company that wants to protect its IP and confidential information. This is an underrated but essential agreement for every startup founder and employee. Getting this agreement right from the beginning will save a great deal of conflict down the line and will protect you from costly litigation.

To learn more about an invention assignment, click here.

Non-Disclosure Agreements

A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is an agreement that safeguards confidential information exchanged between two parties. Its main purpose is to prevent the recipient from using or sharing this information with others without the owner’s permission. NDAs should be considered when sharing information that could harm the business if disclosed to competitors or the public.

Sensitive information, such as proprietary technology and customer data, should be protected with an NDA during business negotiations. However, not all situations require an NDA, such as when the information being shared is already public knowledge or does not contain any sensitive details.

To learn more about NDAs, click here.


A licensing agreement is a legal contract between a licensor, who owns an IP, and a licensee, who is granted permission to use that IP. Licensing agreements are an important aspect of generating revenue and protecting IP for startups.

To learn more about licensing, click here.

Data Privacy Regulation

Startups that fail to follow data privacy regulations can face significant financial and reputational consequences.

One of the most common penalties for violating data privacy laws is fines. These fines can be significant and can vary depending on the severity of the violation and the jurisdiction in which it occurred. For example, companies that violate CCPA in California can be fined up to $7,500 per violation.

In addition to financial penalties, businesses may face legal action from individuals or class-action lawsuits, resulting in significant payouts and damage to a company’s reputation.

The loss of trust from consumers may be even more damaging than the financial impact of a data breach or privacy violation. If consumers do not trust a company to protect their personal information, they may be less likely to do business with that company in the future. This loss of trust can have far-reaching consequences for a business’s bottom line.

Negative media coverage surrounding a data breach or privacy violation can further damage a company’s reputation and erode consumer confidence. This negative publicity can be difficult to overcome and may require significant resources to repair.

To learn more about data privacy, click here.

Data Privacy Best Practices

Data privacy can feel overwhelming for startup founders and operators.

Startups must prioritize data privacy in order to build trust with their customers, comply with regulations and foster sustainable growth. By following best practices for data collection and protection, understanding relevant privacy laws, and responding effectively to data breaches, startups can differentiate themselves in a competitive market and establish themselves as responsible and trustworthy businesses. It’s important to remember that data privacy is an ongoing responsibility, and startups must remain vigilant in order to maintain trust with their users over the long term.

To learn more about data privacy, click here.

Privacy Policy

If your startup collects any data from its users, even a simple email collection for your newsletter, you must have a privacy policy in place.

A privacy policy outlines what data your startup collects and how it is used. This information helps users understand what they’re agreeing to when they sign up for your service or use your product.

A privacy policy also helps establish trust with your users by showing that you take their privacy seriously. It demonstrates that you are committed to protecting their personal information and using it only in ways that align with their expectations.

Without a privacy policy, users may be hesitant to share their personal information with your startup, which could limit the growth of your business. Additionally, failing to provide a clear and transparent explanation of how user data is collected and used could leave your startup vulnerable to legal action.

To learn more about privacy policies, click here.

Open Source Software

Open source software license refers to a license that allows the source code of a software program to be made available to the public. This allows anyone to view, modify and distribute the software and its source code, subject to the terms specified in the license. Open source licenses promote collaboration, sharing and community-driven development. There are several types of open source licenses, each with its own specific terms and conditions.

Open source software can provide startups with a cost-effective, flexible and community-supported foundation to build and grow their business. However, startups need to be mindful of the risks and challenges associated with open source software, such as license compliance, security vulnerabilities, quality and reliability, support and maintenance, integration challenges, scalability issues, abandonment and dependency risks, IP risks, and data privacy and regulatory compliance. Startups should implement a clear open source policy that covers the selection, integration, maintenance, contribution and compliance related to open source software, and seek legal counsel when necessary. By doing so, startups can benefit from the many advantages of open source software while mitigating the associated risks and building a more collaborative and innovative culture.

To learn more about open source, click here.

In conclusion, IP laws are a critical consideration for startups. Understanding the different types of IP, such as patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets and open source licenses, can help startups protect their innovations and differentiate themselves in a crowded market. In addition, startups must prioritize data privacy and establish policies and procedures to safeguard customer data and comply with relevant regulations. By taking a proactive approach to IP and data privacy, startups can build trust with their customers, investors and partners, and position themselves for long-term success.

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