Are you thinking of taking your business global this year? Whether you are a service-based business or hoping to export your products, it’s critical that you take steps to protect your trademarks, copyrights and patents overseas.
Why? Industry estimates suggest that $250 billion is lost by businesses each year due to infringement of intellectual property (IP) rights in international markets.
While copyright laws can provide protection in foreign markets, patents and trademark protection are often a matter of geography. Even if your invention, products and logo are protected under U.S. law, they aren’t automatically afforded protection overseas. You’ll need to register them in those international markets where you choose to expand your business.
IP law can be confusing at the best of times, but here’s what you need to know about protecting your intellectual property rights in these foreign markets, along with resources and tools that can help you.
Determine If You Need to File for IP Protection Overseas
Filing for protection may not be appropriate for every business. The circumstances for determining what type of IP protection is best for your business may be complicated and will differ for each individual business. Furthermore, international protection can be costly. Some issues to consider when making this decision are:
- Will I be conducting business outside the U.S.?
- Do I think I will ever export my product overseas?
- Do I think I will ever manufacture my product overseas?
- Can I afford international IP protection? If so, in what markets would my product most likely be commercially sold?
- What forms of IP are available to me?
- What is the likelihood of my product being copied abroad?
Factors to Consider When Planning Your Overseas IP Protection Strategy
Many small businesses find it challenging to protect their IP rights abroad and are unaware of the processes to obtain and enforce their rights in foreign markets. Some basic, often low-cost steps small companies should consider include:
- Work with an attorney or legal counsel to develop an overall business IP rights protection strategy and include it as part of your exporting or global business plan.
- Develop detailed IP language for licensing and subcontracting contracts and seek out references for trustworthy manufacturers and distributors.
- Conduct due diligence of potential foreign partners. This market research and due diligence guide  on Export.gov can help.
- Record your U.S. registered trademarks and copyrights with customs and border protection  (for a fee).
- Secure and register patents, trademarks, and copyrights in key foreign markets.
How to Register your Trademark, Patent or Copyright Abroad
So how do you register your IP abroad?
If you plan on selling, distributing or sourcing your products abroad, you should consider registering or filing with each country’s IP authorities . However, if you are seeking protection in many countries, you can take advantage of The Patent Cooperation Treaty  (PCT), which has streamlined the process of filing patents in multiple countries. You can now file one patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office  (USPTO) and simultaneously seek protection in up to 144 countries .
Likewise, if you want to get trademark protection in multiple countries, under the Madrid Protocol  you can file for trademark registration in multiple countries. By filing one trademark registration application with USPTO, U.S. applicants can concurrently seek protection in up to 84 countries .
In addition, the U.S. Department of Commerce  has worked with the U.S. embassies in a number of countries to develop “IPR toolkits ” which provide a wealth of detailed information on how to protect and enforce your IP rights in those specific markets.
When it comes to copyright protection, although most countries do not require copyright registration in order to enjoy copyright protection, registration can offer several benefits, such as proof of ownership. The United States has copyright relations with most countries throughout the world , and as a result of these agreements, the copyrights of our respective citizens and businesses are honored.
Take Advantage of Government Tools and Resources
While you may be the first line of defense, the U.S. Department of Commerce, via the Stopfakes.gov  website, does offer small businesses numerous tools and resources to educate themselves about their global IP rights and the process of registering for IP protection worldwide:
- Online Training: Check out this training module  to learn about evaluating what IP protection your business needs as well as the process of registering and protecting your IP rights.
- IP Information for Business Owners: Join discussion boards and access other tools and resources  (such as this China IP Rights Webinar Series  on how to protect your business against online theft) that help businesses protect their IP at home and abroad.
- Country Toolkits: Country IP rights toolkits  contain detailed information on protecting and enforcing IPR in specific markets. You will also find contact information for local IPR offices abroad and U.S. Government officials available to assist you.
- Filing a Complaint: Think your IP rights have been violated? You can file a complaint . If your small business is presented with an issue overseas and is struggling in a particular market due to trademark or copyright infringement, contact the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Intellectual Property Rights  for assistance.
Check out these FAQs for business owners  on Stopfakes.gov.
Copyright Protection  Photo via Shutterstock