Most creatives are in the idea business and our currency is often naivety in our own worth. We tend to think we can’t possibly be the first person to come up with an original thought, recipe, tattoo, line of code, slogan, illustration or music hook. Surely it’s all been done before; this can’t be worth much; no one will notice my work anyhow. And so if I put it out there, what could possibly go wrong?

A lot. Companies employ entire fleets of marketers and lawyers to constantly search for ways in which your ideas, whether intentional or not, collide with theirs.

Case in point. The Seattle Space Needle recently sued a local small coffee chain for using the needle’s trademarked logo in its coffee shop branding and merchandising. The Local Coffee Shop features a mug of hot coffee whose rising steam bears resemblance to the iconic tower’s own logo used on branded merchandise.

This isn’t meant to be an example of the big dog nipping at the runt, but of a company exercising its legal rights over their licensed trademark. The Space Needle’s marketing team is simply guarding against dilution, meaning an unauthorized entity used their famous logo without permission, which could result in a weakened or impaired distinctiveness of their mark.

If the coffee shop would like to get approval to use a likeness of the needle’s logo, the next step is easy: get permission and pay to do so.

Take a note from a longstanding Seattle icon: protect and monetize your intellectual property.

Intellectual property protection is paramount to our ilk. Mainly, it fosters true innovation. And without it, we don’t reap the full monetary benefits of our intangible assets. For example, the fact that a shield of a comic book hero doesn’t look the same as the one in the movie is because the illustrator or publisher didn’t sell the rights to the production company. The potential for a Pacific Northwest artist to create derivative works of their tribal nation’s weavings means protecting those designs from being co-opted by others.

The Creatives Academy dedicates an entire section to intellectual property, specifically outlining the four types of intellectual property and the benefits of protecting each:

Copyrights: must get permission to reproduce the work, prepare derivative works, distribute copies by sale, transfer or ownership or license; perform or display the work publicly.

Patents: subject matter must be “patentable”; your idea must be new; idea must be useful; must be non-obvious. Three types of patents:

  • Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof (good for 20 years).
  • Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design (good for 14 years).
  • Plant patent – Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant (good for 20 years).

Trademarks: identifying the source of your goods or services; providing legal action for your brand; guarding against counterfeiting and fraud.

Trade Secrets: extent to which the information is known outside the company; measures taken to guard the secrecy of the information; value of the information to competitors; extent to which the information is known throughout the company’s employee base and others involved in the business; money or effort spent by the company to develop the information and how easy would it be for others to duplicate the information.

All seems pretty straightforward, right? Nope. Fresh ideas are hatching grounds for litigation and even old ideas have the shelf life of a tomato.

One of my favorite intellectual property cases was the dispute of the movie The Hangover Part II vs. Mike Tyson’s facial tattoo artist. Victor Whitmill, the original tattoo artist of Mike Tyson’s tribal tattoo, wasn’t pleased to see a replication of his artwork displayed on the character played by Ed Helms. He took Warner Bros. to court, nearly derailing the release of the movie which would have been a blessing to America. Warner Bros. settled the claim for an undisclosed amount.

Then there was Dr. Dre vs. a gynecologist. In 2018, a real doctor named Draion M. Burch authored 20 Things You May Not Know About the Vagina and trademarked the name Dr. Drai. No one seemed to care or notice until the rapper Dr. Dre spoke up. He didn’t want the public to be confused by the similarity of names, and tried to prevent the trademark. The U.S. trademark office sided with the real doctor, quite reasonably.

There’s no shortage of jealousy in the world. Intellectual property disputes are never in short supply, but our creations are. You’ve taken the time to develop and perhaps even sell your product, service or invention. Wise creatives take the additional time to protect their intellectual property.