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Monday, 27 April 2015 07:58

Sponsored Content: Small Business Guide: Intellectual Property

Written by  Clark Hill PLC
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Attorneys David J. Marr and Jeff Van Winkle, partners at Clark Hill PLC, share quick tips on the importance of intellectual property law in small businesses. Attorneys David J. Marr and Jeff Van Winkle, partners at Clark Hill PLC, share quick tips on the importance of intellectual property law in small businesses. COURTESY PHOTO

Startups and small businesses can create and preserve value with the right intellectual property decisions.

As the economy becomes increasingly global, the Internet is helping startups and small businesses compete more effectively than ever before.

Unfortunately, some of those competitors cheat. They steal ideas or steal business by playing off other companies’ hard-earned brand reputation. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, intellectual property theft steers nearly $250 billion away from U.S. companies each year. For small companies and startups, those lost revenues can be the difference between thriving and surviving.

To be fair, other competitors make honest mistakes, too. But when two companies show up at the same trade show with similar products and branding, it’s usually not just an awkward moment that ensues.

[FREE DOWNLOAD: Download a complimentary version of Small Business Guide: Intellectual Property]

MiBiz spoke with attorneys David J. Marr and Jeff Van Winkle about how entrepreneurs and small businesses can protect their intellectual property rights, but also how they can protect themselves from getting sued for violating someone else’s IP rights.

Marr and Van Winkle are partners at the Detroit-based law firm Clark Hill PLC, which has 13 offices around the country and specializes in working with entrepreneurial companies. Marr heads the firm’s intellectual property law practice from the firm’s Chicago office. Van Winkle, who served as chairman National Small Business Association in 2014, is a corporate attorney based in Grand Rapids, Mich. who works extensively with business owners and entrepreneurs around the world.

For any startup or small company, the two most valuable assets it has are time and money. So when you start talking about trademarks or patents, lots of entrepreneurs put the hand up and say, “That’s not where we should be spending money right now.”

MARR: You’re right. Resources are limited, especially for a startup company or small business, and you need to spend your money wisely. But there are several options that small companies have for protecting their IP -- and some don’t cost a dime. Part of it is figuring out which one makes the most sense and gives your company the most bang for your buck.

VAN WINKLE: If you think about it, oftentimes for businesses -- especially technology, consumer product or service companies -- it’s their brand name and public identity that are so key. So if that’s really key to the business, it probably makes sense to protect it sooner than later. The other side of the equation is that clients sometimes come in for a meeting about a new company or a new product line and say, “I checked and the URL is available so we’re all set on my name.” And I say, “That’s good, I’m glad you checked that.” But it’s not the end all and be all. There are businesses out there that still might have a name or similar name. Just because you can get the URL doesn’t mean that it doesn’t compete or infringe on someone else’s trademark.

MARR: The last thing you want to do is start spending money on the brand name and then find out that somebody else already has it registered. So now you have to start over again and you’ve wasted time and money. 

Dave, what are some of those “bang for the buck” choices you mentioned for protecting your company’s IP rights?

MARR: Trade secrets are really good value for small businesses if you have a situation where you can keep something secret. It applies to any business process that you use that’s not known to the public. And it doesn’t cost anything. All you have to do is maintain it in secrecy and take certain measures to maintain that secrecy and you’ll protect that asset.

Such as?

MARR: Limiting access to your facility. Requiring visitors to sign confidentiality agreements. Restricting the areas where visitors can have access in your facility. Making sure your employees know that they are under obligation to not disclose processes or methods that go on in your facility.

You both alluded to trademarks as a protection for a company or brand. What type of cost is a business owner looking at to trademark something?

Trademarks are relatively inexpensive. Filing fees range from about $225 to $375 per class. You can do it on your own; if you use an attorney, it could be as cheap as $700. Nowadays, that’s what a plumber costs you. (laughs)

But don’t you develop some common law rights just by using the mark over time? Why would you want to trademark your name?

MARR: The main benefit to federally registering your trademark is that you reserve nationwide rights. So if you ever want to expand into other markets, your right to use that mark is reserved and superior to anyone else. It prohibits other companies from using your name or a similar name. That’s important once you’ve earned a good reputation, because you don’t want anyone else taking credit for that by selling goods or services that play off your marks.

So it’s a strictly a protective measure for your brand then, right?

VAN WINKLE: Actually, I have a client in Michigan that’s entering into a joint venture with a national company. Even though my client is a smaller company, the name that is going to be used for the JV is the my client’s because we have a federal trademark and a number of other registrations. So it gave us a little bit of a benefit in negotiating and forming the joint venture.

What’s the key to getting a trademark approved?

MARR: When you name your company or product, certain words don’t qualify. Generic words are never qualified. The next category down is what they call descriptive marks. So if you want to sell an effervescent soft drink and you want to call it “Fizzy,” the trademark office is going to say that’s just describing a characteristic of the goods you’re selling and we can’t prevent anyone else from describing their fizzy product in that manner. There next category is what’s called suggestive. These are marks that take a mental step. Like a web company that uses a common word like “engine” but puts HTML code around it so it reads as <engine/> when presented. Once you see the logo and code, you can take that mental step that engine is search engine/computer company. The best marks in the trademark office’s mind, though, are completely arbitrary, fanciful marks because they have nothing to do with goods or services, but it’s inherently distinctive.

So are these the made-up words that the drug companies and car companies use for their products? Or a startup will take an arbitrary word and add the suffix “-ify” to it and it becomes a web company. Or “-palooza” and it becomes a music festival.

MARR: Yes. The classic example is Kodak. When they came out with it, it had nothing to do with film or camera. Anytime anyone came close to that name, it was an easy argument for Kodak. Trademark people love the arbitrary, fanciful marks that have nothing to do with anything. Sales people and business owners don’t like them because it’s a “what does that word even mean” situation?

Talk about patents for a moment. When most people think about patents, they’re thinking about utility patents, which can cost thousands of dollars and take months if not years. But there are some other options that are more oriented toward the “brand image” correct?

MARR: For consumer products, design patents are relatively inexpensive and protect you from somebody making an exact duplicate of what your product looks like. It protects the outward, ornamental appearance but not the functional aspects of your product. Filing fees for a design patent are usually around $800, versus thousands of dollars for filing a simple utility patent. The term on design patents is shorter, too -- 14 years versus 20 years.

And haven’t there been some changes in patent law?

MARR: The new patent law went into effect a couple years ago and it’s created some new complications. Say you create a new, patentable invention. If someone independently conceives the same invention as yours -- and that’s more common than you’d think -- and that person files a patent application before you, even though you invented it first, he’s entitled to the patent now. It used to be that the original inventor as long as you could prove it was entitled to the patent. But that was the biggest change with the new patent law.

Jeff, you recently finished your term as the chairman of the National Small Business Association and you do a lot of work around the country and internationally. What are some of the common missteps you see with small companies related to IP?

VAN WINKLE: I see two extremes. First, you have folks that have a few thousand dollars to get a business going, and they’ll spend a bunch of time and a fair amount of that money developing a brand identity and even registering a trademark before they even have really developed the business concept, which sometimes never comes to fruition. That’s one extreme.

And the other extreme?

VAN WINKLE: More often, people don’t spend enough time evaluating or consulting with an expert about how they should be protecting those intellectual assets they’re developing. Companies need to understand that almost everything they do can be replicated, unless you have that one magical machine in the world that makes a widget no one else on the planet can make. That’s not reality. So it’s a good idea for a company to come up with a strategy on how to use IP rights and protections to create barriers to entry for other competitors. Talking to an attorney can help you figure out that strategy upfront.

But again, and this goes to time-and-money equation: It’s hard to cough up $500 or $600 to just talk to a lawyer about what your IP strategy should be, especially if you don’t walk out of there with a document or a filing. It’s just knowledge and you can find everything you need on the Internet.

MARR: You might, if they’re looking in the right places on the Internet. But there is a lot of inaccurate information on the Web, as well. There are some very good sites like, which is kind of a one-stop shop for what federal government sources are available in the intellectual property world.

VAN WINKLE: I think there’s a we-can-figure-it-all-out assumption, especially among tech companies because those are the classic businesses that think they can go to the web and get the information. They are often less interested in paying for good advice. Sometimes it’s younger people; other times it’s people who should have the experience and know better. Some business owners have this kind of weird idea that it’s just different on the Internet. Well, it isn’t really that different. It’s just you didn’t spend money on bricks and mortar. They need to think of themselves as ordinary businesses that should be doing ordinary things. And it would be taking care of protecting an asset - and an asset could be a name or a secret or a product. Just because they’re on the web doesn’t mean they shouldn’t follow those usual best practices.

MARR: The other things we see is that people get really loose with what they think they can take from the web because it’s so available. People take content - they take photographs and movie clips and they think I just got it on the web so I can use it. You can’t. It’s copyrighted material. If you get caught, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.

Yes, you look at a company like Getty Images, which has a reputation for aggressively enforcing its copyright on digital images. Supposedly, they’re backing off the hardball tactics, but in some cases, they brought action against firms that used a single digital image.

VAN WINKLE: Part of it is that they have a product that they’re trying to protect and if they don’t show a track record of protecting it, the owner will have a harder time in the future protecting its interests.

Those cases often take on a David versus Goliath feel where the corporate behemoth is picking on the little guy.

MARR: One of the first firms that I worked for was a law firm that protected a lot of McDonald’s marks. McDonald’s would sue everyone. Or at least send cease and desist letters. There could be a bagel shot up north, McBagel, and the guy’s name could be McDonald and they’d slap a suit on him. At any one point in time, we would have over 300 trademark suits pending. [McDonald’s] didn’t want to be a giant that was harassing all of these small companies. But if they ever had to go up against Burger King or Wendy’s, they wanted to be able to show how strong their marks were and one of the ways that you do that is by showing your enforcement efforts. So that was their main purpose in policing their marks.

There have been quite a few stories along those lines in the craft beer industry lately where startups and young are creating their brand images and finding out later that they’ve infringed on one of the more established breweries. So if you’re doing a startup in any industry really, you really have to be aware that it’s not just about protecting your own IP, it’s also about not infringing on someone else’s IP.

VAN WINKLE: Yes. Today, it might be more important to get your IP under control than having a shareholder’s agreement.

Wait, aren’t you a corporate lawyer?

VAN WINKLE: I support my partners. (laughs) Obviously, if you have someone else’s money, then you better get your ownership interests squared away because you don’t want an internal dispute. But most investors would agree that you should set aside some of capital to protect your intellectual property rights because that is part of the value you’ll be creating in the company.

How does IP play into a company’s valuation?

VAN WINKLE: There are lots of complicated formulas and methods to determine that, but at a high level, the way I describe it to business owners is with two questions: “Why does someone want to buy you?” and “What are you worth?” Usually, with startups and small companies, it is one of two things: They have the idea that is going to save to the world or, more often, they have great cash flow. The next question for most companies and investors, then, is how do you protect that cash flow? That usually comes down to the fact that you’ve got some sort of intellectual property. Maybe it’s a trade secret or a proprietary process or a brand. The more you’ve protected it and documented that protection, the more likely you’re going to get a higher value.

So is it a matter of “you own it” or is is a matter of “you own it and you’re protecting it” as well?

VAN WINKLE: If you’re talking with a private equity or venture capital firm, you’re dead in the water if you can’t demonstrate how you have protected your IP. If it’s a strategic buyer, they’re likely to be more pragmatic about it because they may already be in the market. But in today’s market, IP protection is clearly is an important ingredient to getting the value you want when you’re raising capital or on an exit.

What else do PE or VC firms look for when related to IP?

MARR: They look closely at the substance. I do a lot of due diligence work on mergers and acquisitions or working for private equity firms that are interested in buying companies. Sometimes you’ll see companies putting themselves up for sale and they hadn’t had any patents for 20 years and all of a sudden, they have 15 patent applications. You go, Hmmmm.

Hmmmm seems like a highly technical, legal term. Any closing comments?

VANWINKLE: Get an understanding of IP, whether you’re starting a new company or entering a growth stage through acquisitions or new products. Consult with experts because you won’t pick up that level of understanding and how it intersects with your business from a web page. And it could make a world of difference in how you spend your money.



From attorneys David J. Marr and Jeff Van Winkle, partners at Clark Hill PLC, a full-service, entrepreneurial legal and business solutions provider with 13 offices nationwide. Marr leads the firm’s intellectual property law practice. Van Winkle, who recently served as chairman of the National Small Business Association, is a corporate attorney who works extensively with business owners and entrepreneurs.

IP does not just mean patents. There are a variety of legal methods to protect your company’s intellectual assets, including trademarks, trade secrets, copyright and even website addresses.

Using the right tool can save you money. There are some simple protections, like trade secrets and copyrights, that carry virtually no hard costs. Design patents, which are considerably cheaper than utility patents, may be a solution for some products.

Time is of the essence. Trade secrets need to be protected from day one. Patents need to be filed within a year of making them public, otherwise the invention becomes part of the public domain. After five years of consecutive use, a federally registered trademark becomes incontestable, which makes it immune from most legal challenges.

It’s a big world. Patents and trademark rights are territorial. So even if you have protected intellectual property rights in the United States, you’re not typically covered in other countries.

Strategy counts. Having an overall strategy about how you protect the value of your intellectual assets is key. If it’s just random or reactionary, you may end up wasting time and money.

Resources: is a one-stop shop where small and medium-sized enterprises can find federal government information and resources related to patents, trademarks, and other intellectual property rights. Created by a group of federal agencies including the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, the State Dept. and others.

World Intellectual Property Organization offers extensive information about international IP rights, including databases, legal and technical resources, training, information and dispute resolution.

Google allows you to search patents filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the European Patent Office (EPO), and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

Patently-O is a popular blog about intellectual property law that is curated by Dennis Crouch, associate professor at the University of Missouri Law School.


David J. Marr
Phone: 312.985.5558
Fax: 312.985.5958
Email: [email protected]

Jeffrey J. Van Winkle
Phone: 616.608.1113
Phone: 312.985.5926
Fax: 616.608.1173
Email: [email protected]

For more information about Clark Hill’s legal services related to intellectual property protection or small business development, visit or contact one of the attorneys featured in this publication.


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