Every February, our mission in the Serenity Connective mastermind membership is to conduct an audit of our intellectual property. Occasionally, clients ask why this is necessary. They think that because they are a solo-entrepreneur, or a small online business, they don’t really have any intellectual property assets, and those that they do have are not particularly valuable or important. Nothing could be further from the truth! I strongly recommend that if you are a business owner who cares about the viability and safety of your business – regardless of its size – you need to prioritise ongoing vigilance to keep track of your own creative efforts, protect the reputation of your brand, and ensure you are engaging in best practice.
Protect your business from legal disputes
While the last thing I want to do is increase your fear or anxiety, there is no avoiding the fact that intellectual property infringement is, in my experience, a common cause of conflict for online business owners. When you have poured your creative efforts into your work, or invested considerable time and money in building a reputation around a unique name, finding someone else taking advantage of this without your permission can be extremely frustrating.
Conducting regular searches for important elements of your intellectual property can help you identify any potential infringement issues and take action to stop them. For example, not long ago I ran some google searches looking for specific, unique phrases from my Website Terms & Conditions DIY Pack. I found over 100 people whose T&Cs used those phrases, but who had never purchased T&Cs from me. That is a LOT of lost income! Having identified the issue, I was able to take appropriate action, which included:
- contacting each of those people, informing them that they were breaching my copyright, and asking them to either purchase the DIY Pack or replace their T&Cs with something that did not use my intellectual property
- rewriting the instructions in my DIY Packs to make it very clear that they are only for use by the business that purchased the Pack, and that it is not acceptable to share them, give them away, or suggest that anyone else can copy their work, and
- creating a banner that clients can use on their completed T&Cs along with the following statement, which clients are motivated to use because they have also put a lot of effort into creating unique and original T&Cs to benefit their unique business:
This document was created with the support of Carefree Counsel. Copying it without permission is an infringement of my [the client’s] copyright and Carefree Counsel’s. Look after your business and your clients by getting your own Contracts that Care!
I was very pleased with the success of this investigation. Not only was I able to tighten up my systems to reduce the likelihood of such infringement happening again, I received a good response to my emails, with the majority of people either removing the infringing T&Cs or purchasing a DIY Pack because they had not realised that just “copying someone else’s off the internet” was wrong.
Similarly, taking some time to review your IP at least once a year can identify issues with any 3rd party intellectual property that you are using. It is not uncommon in our Serenity Connective searches for someone to realise that they are using a font which requires a commercial licence which they do not have, or that their VA has been sourcing images for their posts from Google, which places them at risk of receiving a potentially nasty letter from the copyright owner. One of my clients has a team of VAs and does social media marketing for her clients. She thought she had clear guidelines in place, but someone on her team took a shortcut, and her client received a nasty letter demanding payment of a licencing fee for the use of an image that should not have been posted without permission. This was highly embarrassing for my client, who not only had to pay the fee (as the VA did not have the funds to do so), she also had to apologise to her client and reassure them that the situation would not happen again.
As a business owner, you need to be vigilant about how the intellectual property that you care about is being used, and be responsible for creating your intellectual property ethically. This helps you avoid the lost time, expense and stress that are inevitable with legal disputes. It also increases your confidence in your brand identity and in your competence as a business owner.
Increase protection or take advantage of opportunities
Conducting a regular audit of your intellectual property allows you to identify underutilized assets. For example, when is the last time you searched for posts or comments you have made in your favourite Facebook groups? In many cases, these can be a rich source of tips, hints and advice that can be repurposed as part of your content strategy. They are copyright assets that you own and can take advantage of.
Auditing your IP can help you consider whether it is time to claim ownership of a name or slogan as an unregistered trade mark, or register it (noting that neither of these steps should be taken until after you have performed thorough due diligence searches – which is another element of an intellectual property audit.) I conduct these searches on a quarterly basis for myself and my Castle Keeper retainer clients, and it is incredible how much information I find even at just 3 month intervals. When you have a business name or product names you care about, conducting these searches yearly is a bare minimum. If you find any unauthorised use of your trade mark, it is always better to take action about this sooner rather than later, before someone gets invested in their branding and wants to fight you for the right to ownership, creates confusion in the marketplace or does damage to your reputation.
Consider the benefits of using an intellectual property audit to assess the contractual protection of your trade secrets and imagine how they might be licensed to expand your reach & revenue. Unlike trade marks and copyright, trade secrets are ONLY protected by contract. If you are teaching concepts or ideas that you have developed – your “secret sauce” – in your client work, courses, memberships, or programs, and you wish to control how those concepts or ideas are made public, then you will want to be checking regularly that (a) your contracts are doing their work and restricting the sharing of those trade secrets without your permission, and (b) that the people who are bound by those contracts are respecting them and complying with the relevant restrictions.
This process can also highlight opportunities for growth & expansion, such as licensing elements of your IP for use by others. In last year’s intellectual property audit, one of my clients realised that she had several very successful programs that she no longer wanted to teach because she had moved on to a different focus in her own practice. Rather than letting these programs fade away, she offered business owners whom she had previously trained in her methods the opportunity to deliver these courses to their audiences as her licensees, allowing her creative content and expertise to now benefit an even wider audience.
Enhance the reputation and value of your business
What if you are just starting out? You might think that you have no intellectual property assets, but if you are serious about your business then you ARE going to be creating them. Beginning with a comprehensive understanding of the different kinds of IP assets allows you to make effective plans for the long-term growth of your business. It can also be very useful in communicating your strategy clearly to stakeholders – from the family members that you rely on for emotional support and who need to feel connected to your big vision, all the way up to external investors or grant applications, which require a more formal analysis of how your business will operate.
Another major benefit of auditing your intellectual property arises when you ensure that your overall brand presentation supports your integrity and reputation through a consistent appearance & voice. Consistency in branding and messaging across all platforms, such as website, social media, and email marketing, helps establish trust with potential customers and strengthens your reputation as a credible and professional business owner. It is this consistent presentation that helps you build up the kind of market recognition that can evolve into unregistered – and eventually registered – trade marks.
Finally, I encourage you to embrace your intellectual property audit as an opportunity to realign your overall content with your values & vision, and consider any changes that are needed as your business evolves. This helps you keep on track in presenting the kind of well-defined brand image and messaging that increases your chances of glorious uniqueness standing out in a crowded online marketplace, which in turn can result in increased visibility and sales.
How I can help
If you would like to spend a month immersing yourself in your intellectual property assets and reaping all of the benefits that I have mentioned above, you are welcome to join us in February in the Serenity Connective. You can jump in for just the month, or spend a whole year improving your commitment to best practice as the brilliant business owner that you are! If you choose the yearly option with Private Mentoring, you will have 4 hours of my time to use for whatever you want (including intellectual property audits) whenever you need it throughout the year.
Alternatively, if you have specific questions you need answered, or would like an hour of 1:1 support to work on any of your IP needs, you can book an Intellectual Property Strategy Session.