Learn the basics of intellectual property law before starting a business

By Ione Villegas, Innovation Coast Staff Writer

During the race to market a product or service, startups often stumble into business without developing an intellectual property strategy that can affect the commercial success of their new venture. 

Gulf Breeze intellectual property attorney, J. Nevin Shaffer Jr. said simple missteps could be averted by teaching business students the building blocks of intellectual property law before they transitioned to their roles as business owners. Shaffer is taking intellectual property education out of the confines of law schools and making it available to students enrolled in the College of Business at the University of West Florida. He is currently teaching one of only a handful of intellectual property law courses in the U.S. geared to business students. 

“Business students spend hundreds of hours learning how to develop a successful business plan, for example, but they don’t learn the basics of how intellectual property can provide them with leverage against their competitors,” said Shaffer, an adjunct professor at UWF. “The courses being offered at UWF are preparing future entrepreneurs to be productive participants in the innovation economy.” 

With the economy becoming increasingly based on intangible assets, such as copyrights, patents, trademarks and trade secrets, Shaffer said understanding intellectual property law is a critical survival skill that business students need to learn. 

“Intellectual property is an asset that can impact a company’s financial picture,” he said. “I’ve seen companies go out of business because they failed to understand the rudimentary elements of how to protect themselves. Unfortunately, the worst time for companies to start to think about intellectual property is when competitive sharks start circling their money-making business."

Shaffer, who wrote the book "Protect Your Great Ideas for Free," said he’s on a mission to change the “launch and learn” mentality of startups by educating students on intellectual property issues that can arise before they start a business. 

“The inventions may be rocket science, but the information presented to business students is easy to understand,” he said. “I want to demystify intellectual property law and make it more accessible to students.” 

With 36 years in practice, Shaffer has counseled countless businesses in Texas, Alabama and Florida on intellectual property issues and is one of only 135 Florida board certified intellectual property law specialists. He provides the following tips on five intellectual property pitfalls that startups should avoid: 
1.    Keep your idea close to the vest – Failure to keep an idea confidential is a common mistake. Don’t expose your idea publicly before you file a patent. 
2.    Win the patent race – It’s not the first person who comes up with the idea that wins the race, but the first person who files the patent application. The longer you wait, the more risk you incur by not securing protection for your money-making idea.
3.    Make your mark, register your trademark – Don’t register trademarks that are too generic or descriptive. A trademark is made up of two parts: an adjective and a descriptive term. The best trademarks are arbitrary and fanciful. (think: computers vs. Apple computers)
4.    Know your (copy)rights – If you employ an independent software developer to create a web app for your company, the law dictates that simply paying them doesn’t give you ownership of their work. A contract with independent contractors should contain at least these two points: 1) A guarantee that the work will be original, i.e. not simply copied off the internet and 2) They transfer the original work to you, and you own the copyrights for the work that was created. 
5.    Protect the secret to your success – Whether it's customer identities, pricing strategies or current research projects, every successful company has confidential information, or trade secrets, that give them a competitive market advantage. The key is to make sure you keep your secrets secret.

For more information on Shaffer’s intellectual property course (BUL 4990 and 5990) at UWF, contact Dr. Chula King, chair of accounting and finance, at (850) 474-2719 or email cking@uwf.edu.


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