Much Ado About IP

Whenever I speak, it always surprises me that the most popular questions I get deal with intellectual property. Not what it takes to get a tax exempt status and nada on starting an organization. But questions about when to copyright and how much the patent process is. Which to me, is uncanny.

Generally, I don”t like to focus too much time on things like this unless the talk deals with IP. But I can definitely appreciate how marked a departure this is from several years ago. Heck, even last year.

This post won”t go too much into what intellectual property (IP) is or what it”s comprised of, primarily because there”s already so many great resources out there on that. The Copyright Office has tons of easy to read resources on what a copyright is and how to register them. The same is true for the Patents and Trademarks Office and its website.

However, I do preach about how important it is for organizations to treat IP as one of its most important assets. Really, no different than how it treats its cash or computers (Sidenote: if you don”t have protections in place for cash or computers you”re in luck, just posted on that). A few ways to do this are:

1. Be clear on how IP is created and allocated. Does the Board and management have a clear understanding of how new IP is created? Is a large portion of new IP created by employees? Volunteers? Or mostly by sub-contractors or vendors? Do staff or guests often bring their own IP into the organization? Or is a significant amount of IP created during partnerships and joint ventures?

Equally as important as understanding when IP is created is understanding how it is treated once created. Say the organization prefers to own any and all IP created for it around its mission? Is there a blurb in employment agreements clearly requiring that all IP created within the scope of a staff members position, with the organizations resources and/or during its working hours must be disclosed and assigned to the organization? Is there something similar in volunteer agreements? Where vendors or contractors create something (i.e. software, a logo, picture, etc.)  is there a requirement that they agree it is a “work made for hire”, i.e. yours? If a guest comes in and delivers a speech for the organization or a presentation is there similar language in the agreement with them?

And where the organization won”t own the IP (say where a founder comes in Men Scorpios possess not only strength, but also cunningness and this is why a man is simply unbeatable in both an open fight and a hidden struggle. with their own curriculum or IP is created by a partner in a partnership) has it been reduced to writing when, where and how your organization can use their IP? Because if you don”t own it, and don”t have an explicit right  to use it, then you may be infringing on someone else”s right.

2. Protect, Protect, Protect.  So now you understand when the organization creates IP and how, but do you have measures in place to protect it? Confidentiality agreements are always a friend. If in talks with a vendor or pitching to another organization why not have them sign one first? When presenting, place copyright notices on the presentation and materials so it”s clear who the author is. If there are taglines,  marks, photos or other works that are truly integral to the organization then you make take a serious look at registering them.

3. Play Policeman. When volunteers or staff leave the organization are you clear on what they”re taking within them? When clients or other organizations are allowed to use software or a curriculum you”ve created, do you require a license agreement to be signed? Is the general use of the organization”s marks, slogan or materials prohibited without your permission? Does someone watch what is included in contracts to make sure IP isn”t being given away or encumbered by things like security interests? Do you check the web from time to time to ensure your materials and brand aren”t being poached?

There are instances where an organization can lose rights to its IP by not taking proactive measures. So its important to maintain what you have while still taking active measures.

Whenever the organization gets a chance, IP audits are incredibly helpful. Taking a moment to get a hold of what the organization currently has and monitoring it moving forward helps tremendously with protecting and policing.

Also, bear in mind that IP is very geography dependent and changes based on location. So if the organization has international reach then all of this will need to be looked at on a country by country basis. Especially in those countries that are strategically important for the organization.


Great quick primer on the Cullinane Law website.

Brief Q&A on IP at LawForChange

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