In this age of the internet, information may often be free, but intellectual property is not.
When I first began developing content for Wobizzle.com, I spoke with a lot of female entrepreneurs to draw from them topics that they felt would be relevant and beneficial to budding and seasoned business owners alike. Intellectual property issues rose to the top.
Through copyrights, trademarks, patents, etc. intellectual property law protects inventions, trade secrets and literary and artistic works from being copied and/or used without permission. The law also covers things like music, photography and even words, phrases and symbols.
You probably understand why you can’t just slap your company’s name onto the logo of a major soft drink company and call it your own. But surprisingly, small businesses violate intellectual property laws every day. Sometimes it is because they don’t think they’ll get caught. Other times it is because they simply don’t know that what they are doing is illegal. Regardless, the penalties for infringing can be hefty and it is worth educating yourself to ensure that you remain on the right side of the law.
One of the female business owners that suggested this topic learned this lesson the hard way.
As she was setting up her business’ website, she downloaded a photograph off of the internet to use on her site. She thought the image was free since, when she downloaded it, the image was clear and had no watermarks to suggest otherwise. Sometime later, she received a letter from an attorney citing the infraction and demanding $600 to settle the case. The business owner called the attorney, explained her ignorance and was able to reduce the settlement to $400.
How was she found out? Suffice it to say, there are ways.
Think of intellectual property just like you would any other property. Let’s say you own a restaurant and during the lunch hour you find that you don’t have enough chairs to accommodate your customers. You wouldn’t walk into the business next door to “borrow” some would you? Maybe you would if you knew the business owner, explained the situation and asked permission. But you certainly wouldn’t just take them. Intellectual property is no different. Essentially, if you are using something that someone else created or owns and you haven’t paid for it, you may be at risk of intellectual property infringement. When in doubt, get permission, preferably in writing, or find a paid option.
Using website photos as an example, there are ways to get what you need and stay within the confines of the law. One option is to take your own photographs. If you’re not handy with a camera, consider hiring a local photographer to take photos for you. Just be sure that your agreement with the photographer provides you with ownership of the photos. Another option is to purchase stock images through online services like Getty Images or iStockphoto. When purchasing through an online stock photography service, read the license agreement carefully so you fully understand what you can and can’t do with the photographs.
A $400 penalty was a hefty price to pay for the small business owner in this post. But the reality is, it could have been a lot worse.
U.S. law allows for penalties of up to $15,000 for willful infringement. Another harsh reality, the business owner paid a $400 penalty, but if she had gone the legal route in the first place, she might have been able to purchase the license to use the image for much less.