This weekend, my husband and I visited a new brewery in our neighborhood. We were so stoked about its opening that we started investigating merchandise before even trying a single sip of its craft brews. Our online window shopping was cut short, though, by an odd announcement: The brewery—which already had social media pages, a website, and a huge sign erected in front of its physical location—had to change its name. Why? Because when the owners went to file a trademark on their business name, they discovered that an entity too closely related to their business already had the same name. Major bummer. Even more of a bummer: In addition to dealing with all the stresses of launching a new business, the owners had to change their brewery’s name at the last minute. When my husband and I showed up for the soft launch, we noted all the items that had the old name on it. Me-oh-my! They’re going to need new cups, coasters, growlers, menus, merchandise, and signage as well as a new domain name and social media pages.
Surprisingly, this brewery’s mistake is an incredibly common one. The whirlwind of starting a new business comes with miles-long to-do lists, and there’s a lot to think about. Unfortunately, items related to intellectual property (IP) can fall to the bottom, or worse, not make the list at all. After all, most new businesses don’t even know what IP means, let alone how to handle the tasks associated with it. But this lack of knowledge can have big—and costly—consequences, just like we saw with the brewery. And this issue is not unique to the food and drink industry, either. If you’re considering opening a new physical therapy clinic—or if you just opened one—there are some IP considerations you should attend to way before you pay to have your logo slapped on anything. And if you haven’t taken care of these items, you better hop to it!
1. Lock in your company name, and secure that domain.
For starters, let’s learn a big lesson from the brewery:
- Pick your top-three company names.
- Make sure they all have domain names (e.g., YourPTClinicName.com) that are available—and affordable. As Martin Zwilling explains, “Don’t pick a company name until you are certain that you can get the comparable domain name, so Internet brokers won’t hold you hostage.”
- Pay a visit to the trademark office, and secure the trademark for your top choice. (This is where the backups may come into play.) I cannot emphasize this step enough, but don’t take my word for it; take Inside Counsel’s: “Registering a trademark is relatively easy and has significant benefits. It expands the reach of the company’s use of that mark, informs the world of the company’s ownership of the mark, and will immediately inform the company if it is building a name around a mark it does not and cannot own. By contrast, failing to obtain broad trademark protection may expose the startup to liability or to knockoffs with confusingly similar names that steal market share.”
- Take it up a notch by consulting with a trademark lawyer. As Antone Johnson of the Wall Street Journal explains, “Registering a corporate name with a state or obtaining a domain name doesn't necessarily mean the same name can be used in commerce.” Tricky, right? That’s why calling in legal help is a smart move. “There’s no substitute for consulting with a qualified trademark lawyer before investing heavily (financially or emotionally) in a brand,” says Johnson.
- Immediately buy the domain name. While you’re at, buy all the negative domain names associated with your business (e.g., YourPTClinicNameSucks.com), so that no one else can lay claim to them, either.
2. Claim those profiles.
You never send snaps; you don’t plan on posting to Instagram; and you’re fairly certain Pinterest isn’t a good fit for your business. None of that matters. You don’t have a crystal ball, and you can’t predict the future of marketing or customer service. Furthermore, your business name—and your brand—matter; you don’t want anyone else using it on any site. “Many companies like Sears, Coca-Cola, and Twitter have already been hurt by people using company names they don’t own on social sites,” explains Martin Zwilling. Lay claim to all social media profiles—including blogging sites—now, even if you don’t foresee ever using them.
3. Complete all your legal docs.
You’re not a tech startup, so you’re probably not running into the wealth of IP issues plaguing Pied Piper on the hit HBO show Silicon Valley. That being said, there are still several legal documents you should have in place when starting any new business. From company by-laws and employee contracts to liability release forms and operating agreements, these legal documents—while somewhat confusing and time-consuming—can save you from a world of hurt later. Fortunately, the US Small Business Association can point you in the right direction when it comes to completing all the paperwork you need to start your business.
4. Ensure your business plan accounts for IP.
In reality, this step should start with: “Have a business plan,” and then “make sure it accounts for IP.” Having a business plan sounds like a no-brainer—after all, “it’s required should you ever decide to seek financing or sell your business,” explains Entrepreneur.com. But a lot of new entrepreneurs forget to create one first thing, especially if they’re part of an industry where business ownership is not a professional’s defining mission. Hello, private practice PT. Fortunately, the folks at the World Intellectual Property Organization have put together a helpful article entirely dedicated to accounting for IP in your business plan.
Now, to answer the questions on everyone’s mind: Yes, the beer at the brewery was very good, and its new name is just as good as the old one. Not every business’s IP nightmares resolve so sweetly, though. Follow the above IP to-dos to ensure you never have to encounter such headaches in the first place.